Ref, The (United States, 1993)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Ever had a bad day? Of course you have. We all have. But in The Ref, Denis Leary experiences what it's like when Murphy's Law is in full force. This man just can't catch a break. As a statement that crime doesn't pay, this film sure gets the point across, and in a manner that O. Henry would appreciate.

Gus (Denis Leary) is an expert burglar undone by a "Road runner" type alarm system installed in the safe of his latest victim, the owner of an upscale Connecticut mansion. Fleeing a nasty encounter with a guard dog named Cannibal, Gus hijacks a couple at a local convenience store. Unfortunately for him, his choice for hostages, Lloyd and Caroline Chasseur (Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis), are in the midst of a knock-down, drag-out fight that promises to continue well into this chilly Christmas Eve, no matter how much Gus demands that they shut up. The bickering gets louder after the trio reaches the Chasseur house, prompting Gus to declare that he has stumbled into "the fifth ring of hell." And the evening is just beginning...

Usually, the burglar is supposed to be the bad guy, and his hostages the victims, right? Not in The Ref. It quickly becomes apparent that no matter who's holding the gun, Gus is the one in for a long night. The manner in which the situation develops isn't scripted with great ingenuity or originality, but the dialogue sparkles. Not only is it funny, but it's occasionally insightful. As delivered by Judy Davis and Kevin Spacey, the barbs thrown by husband and wife crackle with energy.

Denis Leary is surprisingly subdued. Until the last minute of the picture, there aren't any of his trademark fast-talking, wisecracking tirades. He plays the role of Gus with the perfect blend of self-deprecating sarcasm and sheer disbelief at the situation he's gotten himself into. One wonders if Gus has ever read "The Ransom of Red Chief."

The unwanted relatives that show up around the film's midpoint add another dimension of hilarity to The Ref, and keep the overall story from growing tired. The same cannot be said of various snippets that occur away from the Chasseur house, such as a subplot involving the local police chief which is developed but never concluded. While occasionally amusing, these scenes do little more than distract from the verbal war between Lloyd and Caroline. There's a sense that a lot of The Ref was snipped in the cutting room. While this undoubtedly helped the pacing, it also opened a few noticeable plot holes. This is not a seamlessly constructed movie, but as long as you're not expecting great art, it's unlikely to disappoint.

The dramatic scenes aren't generally effective, but the comic bits more than make up for most of the deficiencies. Those searching for something that examines a crumbling marriage with greater depth and sensitivity would do better watching Judy Davis in Husbands and Wives. The Ref is designed more for those willing to empathize with Gus, a man having the kind of day that most of us don't even like to have nightmares about.

Merry Christmas.

Ref, The (United States, 1993)

Director: Ted Demme
Cast: Denis Leary, Judy Davis, Kevin Spacey, Robert Steinmiller Jr., Glynis Johns
Screenplay: Richard LaGravenese and Marie Weiss
Music: David A. Stewart
U.S. Distributor: Touchstone Pictures
Run Time: 1:30
U.S. Release Date: 1993-03-11
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1