My Favorite Christmas Movie You Probably Haven't Seen: The Ref

Wednesday, December 14, 2011
When one thinks about holiday movies, lots of classics come to mind. The Ref, however, is probably not one of them--and that's a shame considering the sharp comedic writing and acting supporting it. Somehow this one slipped off Santa's radar.

I first rented the movie about 7 or 8 years ago and my mother and I have made it an annual tradition to watch it every Christmas season ever since. In fact, she loved it so much that I purchased it--on VHS, no less. It's now beginning to get so worn out that a fresh copy on DVD may be in order. It may not be the most vintage Christmas movie out there (considering it was made in 1994) but I certainly think it's one of the most unknown/underappreciated holiday films, and one of the funniest, and for those reasons it deserves to have a little love thrown its way. 

The Ref is a comedy film by the late director Ted Demme. It stars Denis Leary as a burglar on the run who holds an unhappily married couple (Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis) hostage in their own home on Christmas Eve as he hides from the cops. Spacey and Davis play Lloyd and Caroline Chasseur, and their constant bickering makes Lester and Carolyn Burnham from American Beauty look like Ozzie and Harriet. You know your marriage truly sucks when you begin Christmas Eve with a visit to the marriage counselor's office--and that's just where we find this miserable couple at the beginning of the movie. The first ten minutes is full of memorable zingers--when Lloyd tells the counselor that his teenage son, Jesse, started an escort service for his school's high school football team and gave out his grandmother's phone number, Caroline retorts with, "And I still say getting laid by an 18 year-old linebacker is JUST what she needs!" That's not Jesse's worst offense--we soon learn that he's in possession of X-rated photos that involve one of the officials at his military school, and he's using them to his advantage.

Leary's character, Gus, is in hiding after his dimwitted partner deserted him after a botched robbery. He eventually makes his way into Lloyd and Caroline's car and orders them to bring him back to their suburban Connecticut house, but not before he loses some of his own patience along the way. Even having an armed criminal in their vehicle can't stop the couple's arguing--to which Gus realizes, "Jesus Christ, I kidnapped my parents." Eventually, Gus begins refereeing the couple with threats to get them to shut up, if only temporarily. 
Back at the house, Gus learns that the Chasseurs are expecting family guests for dinner, including Lloyd's mother, who turns out to be the quintessential stereotyped mother-in-law with financial control over the family (in other words, she's a queen bitch. There's even a portrait of her hanging in the living room.) Momma Rose is a tightwad and about as warm and fuzzy as Dick Cheney on a good day. They decide to pass Gus off as their marriage counselor, Dr. Wong (by explaining that he is half Asian, half Irish.) Christine Baranski has a small but hilarious part as the Chausseurs' sarcastic sister-in-law. 
My favorite scene in the movie is the Scandinavian Christmas dinner. Caroline has taken a Swedish cooking class and decides to show off the dishes she has learned, with little success--the menu looks and sounds horrific. In honor of Saint Lucia, she has made everyone wear wreaths with candles on their heads, and tells the lovely tale of how Saint Lucia was betrayed by her husband and burned at the stake. If you watch the scenes carefully you'll notice that the candles appear at varying heights, as they burned down throughout shooting.

Along the way, there's also a cranky drunk Santa to deal with, a missing baby Jesus, and stupid cops who are more fascinated with watching It's a Wonderful Life then solving crimes...just your typical elements of a comedic movie. And of course, there is some soul searching and a happy ending for all (well, except for the mother-in-law, but I don't want to give anything away.) 
Part of what makes this film work well is the chemistry between Spacey and Davis. Rolling Stone said of the pair, "They are combustibly funny, finding nuance even in nonsense. The script is crass; the actors never." Being a Kevin Spacey fan, I read some years ago that he and Davis didn't actually meet each other until filming began. That's a monumental chance for any director to take, but apparently Demme trusted his instincts, and they worked. And Leary, while still playing a loose cannon, has lost a bit of his potty mouth for this role, which makes him a little more palatable for non-Leary fans. The set is definitely very 90s--the Chausseurs' house is beige, beige, and more beige, complete with a seashell encrusted Christmas tree, and Davis' hairdo makes her look like she stuck her finger in an electrical socket.
So if you've grown tired of A Christmas Story and the other usual comedic holiday movies, I highly recommend giving The Ref a spin in the DVD player. Here's the first ten minutes if you'd like to give it a preview--let me know what you think! 


  1. I saw this one when it first came out and didn't really "get it". Of course, I was much younger then, with different tastes. I recently saw this movie for sale and almost bought it because I think I'd really like it NOW. LOL!

  2. I remeber wanting to see this but have never gotten around to doing it. You've motivated me to check it out this year.

  3. Marlene--one of my sisters borrowed it...she's been married for many years...and when she returned it she didn't say much. I could tell she didn't like it because she could relate to it too much!

    Retro Hound--cool, if you watch it let me know what you thought.

  4. I just got a copy from Amazon. I feel like I saw this when it first came out, but I'm not sure. This might become a Christmas tradition.

    What about 'Trapped in Paradise'?

  5. Vinny--Don't think I've ever seen Trapped in Paradise and I'm trying to remember who was in it...I know it's an 80s flick.

  6. We watch it. Along with "Die Hard". And my persoanl favorite adaptation or the classic, "Scrooged", with Bill Murray.

  7. The Ref has been on my Holiday viewing list since it came out on DVD! I run it with Home Alone, A Christmas Story, Christmas Vacation, Funny Farm, Holiday Inn, The Thin Man, and BlackAdder Christmas Carol!


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