The Ref

The RefSynopsis: He’s taken them hostage. They’re driving him nuts.

MTV’s Dennis Leary stars in one of the year’s most outrageous and highly acclaimed comedy hits. Leary plays an unfortunate cat burglar who becomes trapped in a fate worse than jail when he takes a bickering couple (Kevin Spacey – American Beauty and Judy Davis- Judy Garland) and their annoying relatives hostage. Before long, they’re driving him nuts, and the line between who is whose hostage begins to blur. His only hope for survival is to act as their referee and resolve their differences- or it’s going to mean instant insanity for everyone! Spend a hysterically funny evening with The Ref- you’re sure to experience an irreverent and fun filled time!

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The Ref 7.25

eyelights: Denis Leary. Kevin Spacey. Judy Davis. its basic plot. its dark humour.
eyesores: its relative dryness. its lack of laughs.

“Great. I hijacked my fucking parents.”

God… Christmas. And !@#$-ing Christmas family reunions.

If you’re like me, nothing spells the death of the Christmas spirit quite like the thought of a family reunion – the gathering of a bunch of people with little -if nothing- in common who come together for the holidays under the misguided notion that blood ties bind irrevocably.

It’s the dreariness of repeating the same stories every year because they can’t be bothered to remember any of them, but have nothing better in their social toolbox than to ask. Are you employed? Do you have a partner? Do you have any hobbies? What was your name, again?

In a perfect world, you’d be allowed to mess with all of them individually, telling one person that you’ve installed a meth lab in your son’s crib, another that you’ve been in jail for smuggling corporate data in your rectum, another that you’ll be joining ISIS in the New Year, …etc.

And then gleefully watching the sweat bead on their foreheads, their orbs grow out of their sockets, the palour in their faces – before counting down til they all “discreetly” tell each other the latest gossip and find out that none of it matches with what they’d each just heard from you.

Heh heh…

At least next year the line of questioning might be different. Or they might simply “courteously” ask for a follow-up on last year’s operation: “So, are you still giving Japanese rope bondage workshops at the local retirement home?”, they might ask, (poorly) faking interest as always.

Of course, that’s the best-case scenario.

The reality for some of us is that family gatherings will consist of depressing “conversations” devoid of any meaning and that go nowhere. And, for the least fortunate amongst us, it will mean razor-sharp tongues and growing tensions as past resentments simmer below the surface.

Good luck seeing that devolve into an outright confrontation, though: everyone’s on their “best behaviour”, sustaining the strain of hostilities ’til it fills the room. It’s the fetid scent of the corpse of Christmases past that’s been lain next to the punch bowl but is “politely” ignored.

Yay, Christmas!

‘The Ref’ is a movie that I really want to love. How could you not like a movie set on Christmas Eve that finds Gus, a burglar with the law on his tail, kidnapping a couple who are so horrible to each other that they leave him (and even their own therapist!) utterly discombobulated?

Add to this the fact that he’s stuck in their expensive suburban home, and that, biding his time until his ride arrives, Gus finds himself refereeing the couple’s vitriolic arguments, and you’ve got a premise with a potential for the kind of dark humour that made ‘The War of the Roses‘ so delicious!

And that’s before Gus meets the rest of the couple’s deliriously dysfunctional family!

And pretending to be the couple’s therapist.

But the picture somehow never soars to such heights (or lows, depending on one’s perspective!). Though it delivers on its basic premise, connecting all the dots contextually perfectly, the laughs aren’t abundant enough to make of it an ideal counterpoint to the holiday season.

In its defense, the humour is wry and mostly dialogue-based, which is a huge step up over low-brow or crude humour – the currency of most holiday-themed comedies today. But it just doesn’t bristle with enough zingers to get the ball rolling, to build us up to a series of outbursts.

This is by no fault of the cast: Denis Leary acquits himself admirably in his first lead role, as Gus, sneering like only he can. He’s superb in a hard-edged, impatient, intolerant and sarcastic mode, though he’s also able to affect a softer, more idealistic side when engaging the family.

And almost no duo comes to mind that could outbitter and outbicker Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis as Lloyd and Caroline, the couple that Gus kidnaps. Think of Spacey in ‘Swimming With Sharks’ and ‘American Beauty’ or Davis in any of her Woody Allen film performances.

Pure gold.

But, somehow, the laughs don’t come.

And yet, the only time that the script truly doesn’t work is when Gus harangues his partner, Murray, over his incompetence. At that point it’s hard to imagine why Gus would work with someone so beneath him or why Murray would subject himself to this type of abuse.

The rest, however, comes together nicely. It even injects some class tensions, with Gus taking Caroline and Lloyd’s entire family to task for their feelings of entitlement and for whining about trivialities; he cuts through their BS and forces them to face their darker selves.

All in the name of “therapy”, naturally.

Ultimately, ‘The Ref’ serves up a lot of terrific ideas, and it’s too bad that it doesn’t amount to a more satisfying picture. It’s truly a case of the whole mysteriously not being the sum of its parts. But, if one is capable of savouring the parts individually, then it’s well-worth seeing.

It might even grow on you over time – especially if your family is remotely like Lloyd and Caroline’s.

It’s Christmas for cynics.

Date of viewing: November 13, 2016

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