Chestnuts on an open fire. Mistletoe above the doorway. Pepper spray at the local WalMart. Yes, the holidays are finally upon us, so it’s time to break out all those sentimentally delightful songs and movies that bring cheered spirits, glad tidings, and…boobs? Yeah, sometimes boobs. Those are the earmarks of a really good holiday movie. The ones that percolate just above the surface of the badass that is Jimmy Stewart and his Wonderful Life. The outliers. This (bi)weekly-ish column aims to have your holiday goose gander at Christmas movies that are some might consider inappropriate, but always manage to light some holiday cheer.
Arguably one of the first edgy Christmas movies of its kind, The Ref continues to be a smart, painfully funny ode to that one time of the year that you get together with the people you can’t stand- your family. In his first leading role, Denis Leary plays Gus, a cat burglar who has set his sights on shaking down an upper class suburb on Christmas Eve. With his inept partner Murray, the two start lifting jewels and other valuables and it looks like they are going to end up with quite a haul until Gus opens the wrong safe, gets soaked in cat piss and falls through a trap door into the basement of the house he is in. Murray panics and takes off, leaving Gus to fend for himself.
Gus makes his way to a local market where he picks the worst couple to take hostage- Lloyd and Caroline Chassuer. Fresh from a couples counseling session in which Caroline describes a dream in which Lloyd’s head is served to her on a silver platter with his penis sticking out of his ear. “But don’t eat the penis; it’s only garnish.” She explains. Even with Gus in the car brandishing his gun, it takes no time at all for the two to start fighting like children and Gus starts to realize that he might be out of his depth. The dysfunction does not end at Lloyd and Caroline, however. Their son Jessie is away at military school and is on his way home after blackmailing the dean, and both sides of their family are fast approaching the house for Christmas dinner; a group of insane, awful people who eat before dinner because they don’t like Caroline’s cooking, expect expensive gifts, and use each other to lash out at one another. Posing as Lloyd and Caroline’s marriage counselor, Gus has his hands full in trying to sort out this motley crew, but whether or not he can do it before the cops discover his whereabouts is another question entirely, though not a huge threat; upon recovering Gus’s ski mask, two deputies are relieved to learn that the odd smell coming off of it is only cat urine. “Oh, thank God. Phil thought it might be semen.”
So what makes this a contemporary classic? What, the semen line didn’t win you over? Like all other classic films, it is a confluence of the myriad aspects of the film itself. The script, by Richard LaGravenese, is a rich and funny character study that essentially became the template for Meet The Parents, Monster In Law, and all other middling in-law related comedies of the past ten years. LaGravenese blends the high comedy of a drunk Santa Claus, nut shots, and pratfalls with rich and subtle development of characters just itching to air their dirty laundry. Likewise the cast, headed by a hopped up Denis Leary, who infuses his brand of stand-up comedy perfectly into a role that was tailor made for him. His deliveries are the finest of the film and when he calls the local bar and asks if there is “a fucking waste of life named Murray there”, or when asked his name his reply of “Fuck you, that’s my name,” you believe it as much as you laugh your ass off. Equally effective are Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis under the careful guidance of the late, great Ted Demme, who never gets the credit he so richly deserves.
As it turns out, Gus was the unexpected Christmas gift that Lloyd and Caroline needed most in their lives. Their in-laws might never be able to be righted, but Gus’s scathing opinions and filter-free mouth gives the couple the perspective they need to start anew, likewise their son Jessie who is headed down a life of crime to which Gus concedes in a moment of clarity, “Look kid… what I do, running around, stealing stuff, may sound great when you’re fourteen years old, but it sucks just a little bit when you’re thirty-five. No house. No family. I got a partner who’s fifty… he still can’t understand why they took “Happy Days” off the air.”
Every single person has an insane family. It’s science. It’s also inevitable. The only question remaining is how you deal with the crazy people that you are bound to by blood. But inviting Denis Leary into their home was just what Lloyd and Caroline needed to make their Christmas a memorable one. You’d be smart to follow suit.