Millennial Malaise 45: The Ref

In Which the Fifth Circle of Hell is Connecticut

For many the Holidays mean family, and with family comes the weight of all your relationships. Each point of a star webbing itself around a cast of characters who ping and play off each other. In the American narrative framework, the Holidays are the time when familial togetherness becomes the ripe ground for deep ruminations on the thematics of family, politics, gender, and of course marriage. All gussied up with appropriate decor for the specific get together.

And so slides in 1994’s The Ref a movie that takes the structure of a classic family get together and runs it through a heaping layer of 90’s culture. It’s a Denis Leary vehicle. The film antagonizes the post-Cold-War-the-suburbs-are-bad anxiety. Kevin Spacey is a cool presence. The whole thing has an air of condescension about it, and smugly intones that maybe the burglar with the gun would be a better holiday partner than your spouse. *cue nightclub laughter*

In a way The Ref feels very much like an extended bit during a section of stand-up. The spiel about the old ball and chain, and how the annual forced family gathering is hell unto itself. That feeling is elevated by the fact that this film serves one main purpose, and that’s to get Denis Leary up on screen yelling about things. So the stage is constructed for him to rant and rave. It’s Christmas eve, and bickering couple Caroline (Judy Davis) and Lloyd (Kevin Spacey) are on a tear from the therapist’s office to their home for the family feast. They just so happened to get intercepted by burglar Gus (Leary). He holds them hostage and eventually helps them work through their marital and familial strife.


Director Ted Demme (who previously helmed Leary’s stand up specials) knows how to set this up for high powered barb hurling. Sectioning off his actors into specific corners and frames of the screen so the only weapons they have on hand are the poisoned words spewing from their lips. This is frequently demonstrated by having Caroline and Lloyd literally incapacitated from physical movement: whether with a gun to their heads, or tied to chairs. These set-ups do the work of diegetically restructuring the format of a live comedy routine. Leary is holding his audience captive, and they heckle and laugh at his shenanigans while he does different runs of material.

And what worldly wisdom does Leary have to offer? Well one is that both Lloyd and Caroline are lying assholes; whose insecurities have towered so high they’re unable just to talk straight. Lloyd’s in the grips of his domineering mother and Caroline is a flaky free spirit who is unable to decisively exercise her ideas. It’s the marriage from hell that would only be of such torment in the 90’s. Their physical needs are fully nourished, but their metaphysical fears are filled with dread about leading a purposeful life in the land of plenty. The sniping extended family are definitely worthy targets of admonishment, but the central marital disputes are primo late century “it’s all bullshit man” aphorisms.

Such sentiments especially leak through with the introduction of the bickering couple’s delinquent son Jesse (Robert Steinmiller Jr.). Jesse is never up to any good, blackmailing his higher ups at the military academy and brushing off the work that has family does. And when he blunders into the domestic hostage situation he views Gus less as a direct adversary than a person to admire. Because Gus is the knife that can cut through the titular malaise, a man above the bullshit. The criminal who works with his hands and is good at his job. The professional who has found meaning and purpose in his life, even if it means braking laws and hurting people. It’s the classic romance of the gangster, but gussied up in that 90’s “I hate the suburbs” sheen.


This position Gus holds is why he is able to act as the titular ref. He’s above the pettiness of the squabble and pull out the deep truths that the various members have been hiding. It’s the pressure of the dangerous, potentially lethal, wildcard that finally lights the fire of meaning to each members heartfelt confession. So much so that the family in the end aids Gus’s escape. It fits in perfectly with the times, in the staid, bourgeoisie atmosphere of rich white America, the only thing that can make one move forward is a gun to the back of the head and the threat of real violence.

It’s a shame then that the movie is never quite as good as the hooky premise promises to be. One reason is that there’s obviously not enough marriage material to pad out a full run time, so the plot is peppered in with eccentric neighbors and bumbling police officers, all which feel like slapdash comedy shorthand for the dullness of rich, white America. Even the central conceit feels worn thin by the time the third act comes around. The concept alone facilitates funny interplay, but it is inherently wholly reactionary. With our characters being pinned down and bouncing off what’s happening instead of pushing the whole thing forward.

It again returns to the feel of an extended play in a comedy routine. The grousing about Christmas dinner. When formatted like a dialog with the audience it clicks. But it’s wearying when all of it is put together in one go. With the barest garnish of side plotting wackiness for everything to hold together. The Ref, even with all it’s acerbic language and wicked promises, has the same sensation as watching reruns from your favorite loudmouth comedian.

Odds and Ends

  • Hey that’s BD Wong playing the therapist at the beginning, and J.K. Simmons as a teacher at the academy. It’s always fun to see modernly beloved actors popping up in bit roles from 20 years ago.
  • Ted Demme is the nephew of great director Jonathan Demme. He also died of a heart attack while playing a celebrity basketball game. The entertainment industry is a bizarre place.
  • I have not watched any of Leary’s stand up, but his persona through his film performances has always been touch too grating for my tastes, so I don’t think I’ll investigate it further.
  • Among the hoary tropes paraded through this film are the drunk Santa, gross fruitcake, and an ineffectual police force lead by a singular hard-ass that likes to sleep with the citizens significant others. Definitely a bit wearying.

As always, twitterletterboxd, and I Chews You (the podcast about cooking and eating Pokemon).

Since I’m the ruler of this realm next week we’re covering the movie I’ve seen the most in my life. The bizarre, overlong, ultra-violent, tonally convulated, and pointlessly franchise extending Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.