Well-heeled suburbia on Christmas Eve is not the most dangerous venue on the planet, but in The Ref it becomes "the fifth circle of hell" for a brainy burglar on the lam.
Ted Demme's bawdy domestic comedy fairly shouts "high concept," and there's no point in arguing with witty writers Richard LaGravenese and Marie Weiss: Any movie that can simultaneously knock WASP smugness and Santa Claus on their butts can't be all bad--even if it does force a happy ending on us.
The lean, offbeat TV comedian Denis Leary, mired in big-screen clunkers until now, stars as Gus, a smart and bitter career thief who gets caught in a booby trap while attempting a jewel heist. Abandoned by his boozy partner and reeking of cat pee, he slips out of the mansion he's tried to burgle, only to make the fatal error of kidnapping the unhappiest couple in fashionable Old Bay Brook, Connecticut. Lloyd (Kevin Spacey) and Caroline Chasseur (Judy Davis) are a bitter, bickering, hypercompetitive pair who've turned recrimination into their life's work, even ripping their marriage counselor without mercy. They can't even set their antagonisms aside long enough to get scared when Gus sticks a gun in their faces.
Five minutes into his crime, the kidnapper knows he's made a mistake: "I hijacked my fucking parents!" he laments.
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But Gus's ordeal with the hostages from hell is only beginning once he gets them home. Their juvenile-delinquent teenager (Robert J. Steinmiller Jr.) is en route from military school, and Lloyd's barracuda of a mother (Glynis Johns) is coming over for dinner, along with the rest of the extended (and highly dysfunctional) family. In screwball-comedy style, the town's entire bungling police force and a drunken Santa also drop by the house on Christmas Eve, and amid the chaos of an inedible dinner, The Ref gleefully sticks it to a whole herd of sacred cows--pontificating doctors and sappy holiday cheer, gift giving and family warmth, the tranquility of blazing hearths.
Demme, a former MTV rap-video king, doesn't hit the mark everywhere here, and neither does his high-spirited cast. But this may be the swiftest, most pungent travesty on the conventions of married life since Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner went at it fang and claw in The War of the Roses. When Leary must suddenly pose as a shrink before the assembled family, the comedy hits its zenith, and crowns of lighted candles Caroline makes everyone wear at dinner add just the right visual absurdity.
Amid the holiday smoke and rubble and the consternation of a resentful street tough undone by a pair of battling suburbanites, Demme's cleansing satiric fire burns bright--happy endings be damned.