Thursday, December 24, 2009

Spend a deliciously dysfunctional Christmas Eve with the Chasseur family in THE REF

It's hard to imagine how The Ref, a caustically hilarious and original movie, got pitched to the big boys at Touchstone. "Dog Day Afternoon meets Reservoir Dogs meets National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation!" Nope. "Ordinary People meets Desperate Hours meets Home Alone!" Not exactly. Touchstone went ahead and made the movie anyway, but they never did market it correctly. The problem starts with the title. This is not a sports film, people. Unless you consider the flinging of marital brickbats a sport.

The Ref, which covers the events of one fateful Christmas Eve, is more a collection of stocking stuffers than a present you would find under the tree. That's because, unlike conventional presents, stocking gifts have no rules. Anything could go in the stocking: an orange, a pair of socks, a nifty set of prehistoric animals, a lump of coal, all of the above. And that's The Ref in a nutshell.

Denis Leary, who plays a fast-talking thief named Gus, robs a suburban mansion and sets off all the alarms, so he needs a getaway car and a place to hide till he can figure out how to get around the roadblocks. It's his bad luck to choose as hostages the bickering Chasseurs, whom we've already met in a blackly side splitting, no-holds-barred session with their marriage counselor. To say that Caroline and Lloyd Chasseur (Judy Davis and Kevin Spacey) are bickerers is to say Mystic Mints are cookies. These two are the most merciless human migraines you've run into since you last looked in the mirror. Gus is flabbergasted at the sheer venom of their attacks on each other, especially since they are living what certainly looks to him like the good life. He is so dumbfounded at the invective they spew that he unwittingly finds himself playing the role of mediator more than hostage-taker (hence the title of the film).

Though Leary has the most immediately funny scenes (he is, as usual, all bottled energy and screw-you attitude) and shows terrific screen timing and presence, it's Davis and Spacey who are the heart of the film. The rest of this prom-night carwreck of a family includes the Chasseur's son, the possibly still redeemable "demon seed" Jesse (Robert Steinmiller Jr.), Glynis Johns as the preposterously overbearing matriarch, and a number of other first-rate familial irritations. Steinmiller proves our theory that the kid who played Alfalfa did not grow up to be killed over a $50 debt; he was cryogenically frozen and subsequently thawed out for this film.

While the acting is what really works in The Ref, the writing comes in a very close second. Screenwriters Richard La Gravaneses and Marie Weiss's dialogue crackles, and just when you think one of the stabbings from one of the spouses will sting fatally, the other volleys back with a kamikaze zinger. It's how you wish your parents had argued, because damn it's entertaining. Potential dvd renters should be forewarned about one thing. At the beginning of the movie, Leary is sprayed with cat urine as he bungles his burglary attempt, and throughout the film, one character after another remarks, "What's that smell?" This is a metaphor, in a way, for you will notice an odor, too. Near the end you're going to say, as you wrinkle your nose and whiff the air, "Is that... Touchstone I detect?" Yes, yes, it is. Touchstone processes good scripts with the same reluctance that W.C. Fields's liver processed alcohol, so, true to their name, they use their touch to turn living things into stone: Leary is never allowed to be quite bad enough, and things do have to work out with mildly tedious agreeability at the end. But these are just quibbles, and, after all, when you grab your stocking off the fireplace mantle, you have to take the socks along with those nifty animal toys.

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