THE REF (1994) – Not your ordinary Christmas movie



The following is my entry in my In Like a Lion, Out Like a Lamb Blogathon, being hosted at this blog from Feb. 28-Mar. 1, 2016. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ accounts of how they attended certain movies with great trepidation, only to be pleasantly surprised by them!


R.I.P., Blockbuster Video.

I never thought I’d write those words. But I have to admit, if you hit that place on the right night, with someone on the floor who really knew his or her movies, it was like getting directed to a rare album selection at Tower Records that you never even knew existed.

One Saturday night, my wife and I were in Blockbuster, wanting to find a fresh comedy but at a complete loss for what to watch. We got all the way to the checkout lane with a half-baked selection, and the cashier could actually see the despair in our eyes. She asked what the problem was. When we told her, she asked, “Have you ever heard of The Ref?”

When we heard the title, my wife and I declared that we weren’t interested in any feel-good football movie. The cashier laughed and told us that the title was simply deceiving. She gave us the movie’s box to look at. Denis Leary? Kevin Spacey? Whoever heard of these guys?

The cashier smiled and assured us that, if we were in the mood for a dark comedy, we should take her word for it and rent the movie. Blessed be that cashier — we can only hope that cashier has gone on to bigger and better things in the movie world.


The movie introduces us to an on-the-rocks couple, Lloyd and Caroline Chasseur (Spacey and Judy Davis), whose bickering is so tumultuous that even their marriage counselor (B.D. Wong) can barely keep it contained. On their way home, it is the Chasseurs’ bad luck to run into Gus (Leary). Gus has tried to pull off what he thought was a simple burglary, but he barely escaped the toothsome clutches of a guard dog, and his alcoholic partner has driven off without him.

Gus holds the Chasseurs at gunpoint, tells them to drive to their home, and holds them hostage there while he tries to figure out how to bail himself out. Meanwhile, the homefront gets even more complicated when the Chasseurs’ spoiled son Jesse arrives home from boarding school.

Oh, and this all occurs on Christmas Eve, which ushers in an enjoyable subplot involving the Chasseurs’ self-absorbed family (led by the sublime Christine Baranski) and some smile-inducing nods to It’s a Wonderful Life and “A Charlie Brown Christmas” (wait for it).

So many modern dark comedies are tiresome, not because they have a nasty edge to them, but because they pretend to be hostile while taking a “just kidding” approach because they fear alienating their audience. The Ref serves up its bile straight and black and is at its most delightful when it shatters audience expectations.

Gus thinks all it will take to get out of this mess is a gun and an attitude, but he ends up being the titular referee to this volcanic couple that he can’t shake. And Gus has even more to deal with when Jesse finds more of a father figure in Gus than he does in his own father.

The Ref is simply a delightful surprise all around, right down to the credits. The script is by Richard LaGravenese, who pulled off a similar black-humored miracle with his screenplay for The Fisher King. But the movie’s biggest surprise is that it was produced by Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer! How did the masterminds behind Top Gun and Flashdance catch their breath long enough to do a dark, thoughtful character study?

Of course, if you’ve seen the sterling work of cast members Leary, Spacey, Davis, and Baranski in the past two decades, I don’t have to sell you on their work here. The Ref is like a warm-up for their greatest work to come — a very heated warm-up.

One response to “THE REF (1994) – Not your ordinary Christmas movie

  1. Blockbuster was pretty awesome, the selection was okay, but I loved the concept of blindly grabbing a film and making an awesome discovery! And my goodness I can imagine the joy of discovering Dennis Leary and Kevin Spacey in one fell swoop, plus Judy Davis and Christine Baranski, talk about a great cast, the casting director should have gotten an Oscar for best ensemble.

    Enjoyable read, 😉

    and now I am nostalgic for a Blockbuster experience.

    Liked by 1 person

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