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The Ref

So, this happened. In fact, it happened at the Clackamas Town Center Mall, not two miles from where I live. Out of an estimated 10,000 people at that mall, only two were killed (plus the shooter) and one was seriously injured. I’d call that getting off lucky, though it’s a tragedy all the same.

Then again, I’d argue that such senseless acts of violence only reinforce those ideals we associate with the holiday season. After all, there really is nothing like a totally random catastrophe to serve as a reminder that we should hold our loved ones close, be thankful for what we have, and show some measure of compassion for our fellow man. That’s really what the season of giving is all about, isn’t it?

I confess that I’ve been trying for the past few weeks to put off my holiday cheer, working to keep the spirit fresh so I wouldn’t be tired of it by the 25th. In light of this shooting, however, I think the time has finally come to bring some Christmas into my life and into my blog. It’s time to do a more festive entry.

That said, I never wanted to write about the same old Christmas films that everyone’s seen. Holiday cinema — much like holiday music — is very sharply divided between the cash-in crap and the overplayed classics. Finding something new that’s also worthwhile is a very difficult task. Luckily, the good people at CHUD’s “Movie of the Day” series have spent the past few weeks tracking down underrated holiday gems. In particular, I’d like to thank one Daniel W. Baldwin for introducing me to The Ref.

There’s just one little drawback: If you want a movie filled with holiday cheer, this ain’t it. That’s not to say it isn’t a good movie, but it’s sure as hell not your typical Christmas flick either.

We open on Christmas Eve in a small Connecticut town. The premise begins with Lloyd and Caroline Chasseur (Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis, respectively), who we first meet at a marriage counselor’s office, screaming their heads off at one another. Lloyd accuses his wife of being a flighty dilettante with nothing that remotely resembles a career path. Caroline accuses her husband of being a bore with a stick up his ass, too cowardly to crawl out of his mother’s wallet. They accuse each other of turning their son (Jesse, played by Robert J. Steinmiller Jr.) into a juvenile delinquent, and that isn’t even getting started on Caroline’s brief affair.

These two are seriously incapable of talking to each other for two minutes without starting a fight. The marriage counselor is certainly no help, since he can’t talk loud enough to get a word in and he’s prohibited from making judgments or taking sides. The whole situation is a mess, and it’s about to get even worse.

Somewhere else in town, we meet Gus (Denis Leary). He’s a jewelry thief robbing a particularly wealthy family, one with a much more elaborate security system than he bargained for. The rich family call their political friends, the local and state police get involved, and Gus’ getaway goes sour.

After barely escaping on foot, Gus crosses paths with the Chasseurs. He takes them hostage, ordering them at gunpoint to drive to their home, where he plans to hide until the heat blows over and another form of transportation can be secured. That’s when everything hits the fan. But before going into more detail on that, let’s continue meeting our cast.

Getting back to Jesse, the kid isn’t just a juvenile delinquent — he’s a smart juvenile delinquent. The kid has made several thousand dollars in a blackmail scheme against one of his instructors at military academy, of all places. Much as he hates the idea of going to see his parents for the holidays, he’s scheduled to arrive for dinner on Christmas Eve.

Then we have the extended family. Lloyd’s brother and sister-in-law (Gary and Connie Chasseur, played by Adam LeFevre and Christine Baranski) are also stuck in a bad marriage, almost entirely because Gary is a spineless moron married to a shrill and overbearing harpy. They also have kids (John and Mary Chasseur, played by Phillip Niccoll and Ellie Raab), both of whom are total brats. The lot of them are travelling with Lloyd’s dreaded mother (Rose Chasseur, played by Glynis Johns), for the same Christmas Eve dinner at our Connecticut setting.

Last but not least, we have the local police officers, every one of whom is a bumbling dolt completely unqualified for any serious crime happening in this quiet little town. The supporting cast also includes Murray (Richard Bright), a drunken and cowardly old alcoholic who serves as Gus’ incompetent partner in crime. We’ve also got George (Bill Raymond) a drunken Santa Claus who goes around causing trouble for everyone.

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll notice that the entire family is descending upon the house where a hostage situation is unfolding. Obviously, tying up and gagging every one of them isn’t exactly an option, and Gus can’t leave the house until a means of getaway is secured. Even worse, law enforcement is making house sweeps to look for Gus, which means that he has to hide in plain sight if he’s going to maintain control of the situation.

Basically, Gus has to attend the family dinner while pretending to be the marriage counselor from before. It’s bad enough that he’s been dealing with Lloyd and Caroline’s crap up until this point, but now he has to mediate a huge battle royale between an entire dysfunctional family, all while pretending that he’s a trained psychiatrist. Very quickly, we’re led to wonder precisely who the hostages are in this situation.

Let’s recap: Our main married couple are two bickering assholes. Their son is a blackmailing asshole. The son’s teacher is a perverted asshole. The main thief is a smart-talking asshole. His partner is a brainless and drunken asshole. The people they rob are a bunch of pompous assholes. The local police force is loaded with idiotic assholes. The Santa Claus utterly ruins Christmas for everyone, which makes him a huge asshole. The in-laws are assholes with a couple of asshole kids. The mother-in-law is a self-righteous and stingy asshole.

That’s right, ladies and gents: *bad Oprah imitation* HE’S AN ASSHOLE! SHE’S AN ASSHOLE! THEY’RE ALL ASSHOLES! EVERYBODY IN THIS MOVIE IS AN ASSHOLE!

There is seriously not a single sympathetic character in this entire movie, yet that’s precisely the reason why it works. The whole movie is built around characters calling each other out on their shit, trading due comeuppances, and it’s all hilarious precisely because we have zero compassion for these characters. It’s funny to watch these characters suffer, destroying themselves and each other for perfectly legitimate reasons, because that’s exactly what we want to see.

Alternatively, as Mr. Baldwin pointed out in his review, “Do you have family members who you love, but just irritate the ever-living shit out of you on a regular basis during the holidays?  Do you ever wish you could just cut loose on them and tell them how you really feel, cutting through all of the bullshit and lies?  This is your film.” As much as I dislike quoting other reviewers, I must give Mr. Baldwin credit: The film absolutely works on that level.

Alas, one of my biggest problems with this film is the title. I don’t know what might have been an adequately descriptive title for such a premise as this one, but “The Ref” isn’t it, in my opinion. That said, it is an adequate description for Gus’ place in all of this. After all, Gus doesn’t know these people, nor does he give a single fuck about their feelings. He just wants to settle their arguments so they can finally shut the fuck up and be good, quiet hostages. Of course, it also helps that Gus has a gun to help him get a word in edgewise.

However, Jesse also works as a very capable mediator for Lloyd and Caroline. They both care immensely about his opinion, and he knows their problems better than anyone. Hell, the whole reason he got involved with making illegal money in the first place was so he could save up enough money to finally and completely sever all ties. It wasn’t one parent or the other who caused the kid to turn rotten, it was the both of them at each others’ throats.

It’s quite a fascinating thing to watch Gus and Jesse interact with each other. One’s a budding criminal who yearns for the freedom Gus has, and the other is an accomplished criminal eager to complete this last huge score so he can get out of the game for good. This leads Gus into a few very sincere and heartfelt lectures, reminding Jesse that the kid lives in the lap of luxury with a loving (albeit dysfunctional) family. It’s a call for Jesse to be thankful for what he has and not to be so whiny about the fact that life didn’t turn out the way he wanted, both of which are prominent themes for all of the characters in this film.

It’s the writing that really makes this movie work. It’s a great thing that this movie has such razor-sharp dialogue and banter, for the premise would have been DOA without it. As it is, the film has a very dark and very sharp sense of humor that’s elegantly expressed by the script.

(Side note: Speaking of the premise, does this film sound at all like a Jerry Bruckheimer movie? Well, guess who co-produced this picture. Yeah, I was every bit as surprised as you are to see his name pop up.)

Of course, the actors all deserve tremendous credit as well. Denis Leary built his stand-up career on a hyperactive, angry, blue-collar style of humor, which naturally makes Gus a perfect fit for him. As for Kevin Spacey, he plays Lloyd with unpredictable mania under a thin veil of detached calm as only he could deliver. As for Judy Davis, she delivers an overly emotional trainwreck who’s very easy to hate. The supporting cast is perfectly fine, don’t get me wrong, but it’s this core cast and the volatile chemistry between them that really makes this film worth watching.

Even so, I have a few problems with the ending. Specifically, the ending of this film felt way too neat and tidy. There were a lot of face-turns going around in the last five minutes, all of them way too fast and convenient in my opinion. Plus, the climax was decidedly very small in scale, which really wasn’t the way to go. With so many criminals and short-tempered fools bickering under one roof, I expected the film to end like National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. This house should have been surrounded and invaded by armed SWAT officers ready to arrest each and every one of these characters.

That’s not to say the ending is necessarily bad, but a powder keg this volatile should have made a bigger explosion is all I’m saying. Incidentally, I understand that the film originally had a very different ending in which Gus does indeed go to jail. I’d be interested to see that ending, because it sounds much more in keeping with the movie’s primary mission: Delivering karma to a cast full of assholes.

In spite of my minor complaints, I still had a great time watching The Ref. Thanks to the whip-smart writing and the superb main cast, this was a darkly hilarious film from start to finish. I’d never have guessed that a good holiday film could be made with such a bitter and argumentative cast of total assholes, but the total lack of sympathetic characters works in the movie’s favor by powering the film’s comedy. What’s more, the film manages to convey an implicit holiday theme of giving thanks, all without compromising the cynical comedy.

This is the perfect antidote for the tired and overplayed Christmas classics. If you’re eager to discover a hidden gem of holiday cinema, give this one a look.

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