Sunday, March 13, 1994.THE REF. Written by Richard LaGravenese and Marie Weiss. Music by David A. Stewart. Directed by Ted Demme. Running time: 95 minutes. Rated 14 Years Limited Admission with the B.C. Classifier's warning "some very coarse and suggestive language."
CHRISTMAS COMES BUT once a year . . .
Christmas movies, on the other hand, can turn up at any time. Remember how the Die Hard pictures, two film hits set during the festive season, both opened in July?
Now, faith and begorrah, the Yuletide observances continue with The Ref, a Christmas Eve comedy arriving just in time for St. Patrick's Day. A wry celebration of family, it features Boston Irish comedian Denis Leary in his first big-screen starring role.
Working a variation on his prickly, pacing MTV Guy, Leary plays Gus, a cat burglar out of sorts after a meeting with a guard dog named Cannibal. On the run from a bungled B&E, he takes temporary refuge in the home of Lloyd (Kevin Spacey) and Caroline Chasseur (Judy Davis).
The least-happily marrieds in exclusive Old Baybrook, Connecticut, the Chasseurs turn out to be the hostages from hell. "Great!" says the PO'ed perpetrator as the warring couple battle on, "I hijacked my fucking parents."
Some parents. Caroline, who wants a divorce, is Davis's bitchiest creation since her Oscar-nominated performance as Judy (in Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives; 1992). She plays the sort of woman who describes her Bobbitty, husband-hating dreams in public.
Lloyd, only marginally more likeable than the pond scum wife-swapper Spacey played in Consenting Adults (1992), refuses to give Caroline a divorce because that's just what she wants. Gun-toting Gus cannot believe the marital sparring match that he has to referee just to make it through the night.
It's some family. Scheduled to turn up for a fun Christmas dinner are the Chasseurs' larcenous son Jesse (Robert J. Steinrailler, Jr.), Lloyd's overbearing mother Rose (Glynis Johns), his wimpy brother Gary (Adam LeFevre) and Gary's snippy wife Connie (Christine Baranski).
It turns out that Lloyd, owner of a failing antique shoppe, is deeply in debt to his Mom for start-up costs. Their unhappy son is an aspiring felon, and nobody dares stand up to wealthy, manipulative Rose.
There are family ties behind the camera, too. Marie Weiss, who came up with the story and co-authored the screenplay, is the wife of the picture's co-producer, Jeff Weiss.
Director Ted Demme is the nephew of Oscar-winner Jonathan (Silence of the Lambs) Demme. The MTV producer who "discovered" Leary, Demme made his own feature debut last year with Who's the Man?, a rap musicians' block party masquerading as a movie.
With The Ref, Demme emerges as the Gen X John Hughes. A welcome antidote to the odious Home Alone movies, Demme's wickedly funny feature has no truck with pukey-cute sentimentality or artificial good will.
Filming in and around Toronto, Demme has captured the North Shore Chicagoland look familiar to Hughes film fanciers. He then proceeds to heckle the bathetic hypocrisy at the heart of every recent Hughes picture.
Demme's film drops disbelieving leprechaun Leary into the middle of an authentically unpleasant suburban Christmas. Outrageously hip, his picture comes complete with Santa Lucia candle-crowns, a demon granny and a drunken Santa Claus.
Pass the green-coloured egg nog.
The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1994. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.
Afterword: Twenty years after Bob Clark's Black Christmas invented the anti-Christmas movie, the writer-director partnership of Richard LaGravenese and Ted Demme turned out a masterpiece of the subversive sub-genre. The two would come together again to co-direct the three-part cable TV documentary (also released as a feature) called Decade Under the Influence (2003), a reverent tribute to the rebel directors of the 1970s. Demme, whose subsequent features Beautiful Girls (1996) and Blow (2001) suggested his own promise as a rebel auteur, died of a cocaine-induced heart attack in early 2003. LaGravenese followed a more cautious career path, making his own directorial debut in 1998 with the intelligent romantic-comedy Living Out Loud. Earlier this year, he wrote and directed Beautiful Creatures, an adaptation of a Twilight-like young adult fantasy novel by Kami Garci, a picture that Variety called "a teen franchise starter."
Christmas Countdown: Mixed Nuts (1994); Black Christmas (1974); Home Alone (1990); Santa Claus - The Movie (1985); Prancer (1989); One Magic Christmas (1985); Nobody's Fool (1994); Gremlins (1984); Scrooged (1988); A Christmas Story (1983); Die Hard (1988).