It goes without saying a lot of standard holiday elements go into making a Christmas film. (Unapologetic plug: Take a gander at the Christmas short I wrote about a few weeks ago, A Wish For Wings That Work, which offers a panoply of those elements.) However, to make a Christmas classic, a great many holiday tropes must be incorporated.
But wait. There’s a third category of Christmas film where Christmas is nothing more than a backdrop, not really having anything to do with Christmastide or its trappings.
A few of these types of films which come to mind are Gremlins (wherein the main character starts out simply as a Christmas present) and Die Hard (where Christmas time is used simply as a convenient framework for the story, nothing more). In these instances, both films have become classics in their own rights despite a tinkling of Yuletide flavor. But they’re definitely not Christmas classics. It’s hard to argue Die Hard not being considered one of the quintessential action films. Gremlins? At its core, it’s an archetypal horror flick … fluffiness notwithstanding. Still, for many folks Christmas isn’t truly Christmas without getting in a viewing of either film.
A tad confusing, wouldn’t you say?
Well, sir … I’m here to muck up the waters even more by tossing another film in that third category: The Ref. With Christmas presented as film atmosphere only, I offer this as a classic black comedy to be added to your must sees during the holidays.
The Ref is interesting to say the least. It’s dark, funny and coarsely profane throughout its 93 minute run time. tweet
Brief synopsis: Left to his own devices by his bumbling partner Murray while running from the police after a failed burglary attempt, Gus (Denis Leary) winds up in the midst of squabbling, on-the-outs couple Lloyd and Caroline Chasseur (Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis) fresh from a Christmas Eve marriage counseling session. Hijacking the couple at gunpoint to take him to their home for refuge, Gus is forced to juggle keeping Lloyd and Caroline hostage while he figures out how to extract himself from a police dragnet. Complicating matters, the couple’s conniving son Jesse is returning home for the holidays from military school while Lloyd’s brother and family (along with a Lloyd’s mother Rose, a wealthy, no-holds-barred, heartless woman who has no problem speaking her mind) are en route for a Christmas Eve dinner. The fun really begins as Gus impersonates Lloyd and Caroline’s marriage councilor during dinner, offering rollicking, biting and profane satire, the true strength of the film.
If you’ve never seen the film, it starts out of the gate with a rather jaw-dropping exchange with Lloyd and Caroline snapping at each other, their marriage proxy listening in and offering guidance:
Caroline: “I’m in this restaurant, and the waiter brings me my entree. It was a salad. It was Lloyd’s head on a plate of spinach with his penis sticking out of his ear. And I said, ‘I didn’t order this.’ And the waiter said, ‘Oh you must try it, it’s a delicacy. But don’t eat the penis, it’s just garnish.'” tweet
Yeah. That. You know you’re not in for your traditional feel-good Yuletide offering when you hear that come out your television speakers. What follows lives up to and expounds on that opener. Rather unexpectedly, despite the non-traditional feel of a holiday offering, (SPOILER!) everything ends up a-okay come the closing credits.
Denis Leary was enough to pull me in when I first caught wind of this film last millennium. Fresh off his MTV “skit/rants” of the time, Leary’s abrasive tirade style fits his character Gus perfectly. I can’t imagine another actor who could fill the role as sarcastically and as frustratingly as Leary. In fact, the entire main cast is terrific, keeping you on your toes throughout. Kevin Spacy and Judy Davis play caustically off each other to a tee. And when isn’t Christine Baranski (as Lloyd’s sister-in-law Connie) over the top? Her role was a nice little bonus in the film. Speaking of bonuses: Lloyd’s mother Rose? As played by the terrific Glynis Johns? You may recognize her as the distracted Winifred Banks in Mary Poppins and also as Lady Penelope Peasoup, assistant to Lord Marmaduke Ffogg (Rudy Vallee) in the 1960s Batman television series.
Released in 1994 (20+ years ago! Yikes!) The Ref holds up without tarnish. There’s no need to know the backgrounds of the actors or what they had done up to that point. It’s refreshing to know you’re headed into a film without any baggage, one which plays out well and doesn’t lose interest.
However, it’s not without a plot point I found groan-worthy. Set during the Christmas holiday as noted, the (almost) end didn’t hold my praise as did everything that came before in the flick. Because the method used to foster Gus’ eventual escape was contrived in a manner I thought was a cop out: Gus makes his way out of town dressed head-to-toe as Santa. Playing up on this device didn’t hold water with all the story that came before it. This cheesy plot point was a dodge, a poor excuse to afford Gus’ exit. The writers tried but failed in this instance. You’ll see what I mean when you take my advice and not miss this picture.
Bottom Line: If you want your comedy intelligently vulgar, black and sarcastic, something to counter the sugar-sweetness of holidaytime and all its trappings leading right up to the New Year, The Ref is your ticket. It’s the Christmas film that’s not a Christmas film.
And sometimes around the holidays that’s just what you need.