We all have “undiscovered” film favorites — movies which barely register on the radar of the mainstream masses, but strike us as the epitome of artfulness, or at least entertainment. Take Ed Wood, which is arguably Tim Burton’s finest film, but which few have seen. Or if you’re looking for a Christmas movie, take The Ref.
Regardless of the season, The Ref is one of the sharpest, wittiest, funniest and most ably played comedies I’ve ever seen. Directed by the late Ted Demme and starring Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis as a ceaselessly bickering suburban couple held hostage by Denis Leary’s jewel thief, this Christmas Eve tale uses forced familial closeness and emotionally detached rituals as an ironic backdrop for PDD, or public displays of dysfunctionalism.
Sure, you could take the safe route and check out The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet: Christmas With the Nelsons, new from Shout! Factory, with four feel-good holiday episodes. Or you could try Holiday Treats, a grouping of eight Yule shows from CBS/Paramount featuring holiday cheer from I Love Lucy to Wings. Or you could stick a toe into subversive Christmas charm with DreamWorks’ Shrek the Halls, a more contemporary and lively delight. Of you can play it safe and turn to that old holiday favorite, It’s a Wonderful Life.
But if you want to enjoy the holidays by offsetting imposed “good cheer” with more grounded and relevant human folly, your best bet isn’t the great Bad Santa and its like but the even greater The Ref, a film which doesn’t skewer Christmas so much as its tyranny of traditions, against which one warped family comes to terms with itself.
Spacey and Davis are simply sensational as the couple that’s grown so far apart that they fail to notice they still love each other, while Leary is the perfect tough-talking referee for their squabbles. You’ll also find a wealth of fine supporting players, from Christine Baranski (the best “oldster” player in Mama Mia!) as Spacey’s visiting sister and Glynis Johns as their controlling mother from hell to J.K. Simmons (Spider-Man, Burn After Reading) as the military school officer being blackmailed by the feuding couple’s son (a spry yet soulful Robert J. Steinmiller Jr.).
The screenplay by Marie Weiss and Richard LaGravenese has some of the most smartly written dialogue ever, including this exchange between Davis and Spacey: “How can we both be in the marriage and I’m miserable and you’re content?” she asks. “Luck?” he replies.
Yet The Ref ultimately isn’t about bleak estrangement so much as dawning reconciliation and even an unlikely bonding, with Leary quickly becoming almost part of the twisted family. And hey, if you require a dose of old-fashioned traditionalism, It’s a Wonderful Life is playing on TV down at the police station — and is involved in a plot point.
Even so, though this is perhaps the funniest anti-Christmas film ever, The Ref is largely unsung. It was dumped by its studio in March of 1994 — springtime! — and, of course, it flopped. But for those who have discovered it since then, The Ref remains richly rewarding. Eventful, cutting, rousing and profanely funny — yet also weirdly warm — The Ref is sheer comic artistry that’s worth savoring each December, which is exactly what my wife and I do. And like any truly great film, it never gets old. Enjoy.