The Ref (1994)


Black comedy comes in two basic types. There’s the genuinely subversive kind, the kind that really undermines basic moral or cultural values. But there’s also the kind that slyly satirizes our failings and foibles while ultimately affirming our values — values we may not perfectly realize, but aspire to nonetheless.

1994, Touchstone. Directed by Ted Demme. Dennis Leary, Kevin Spacey, Judy Davis.

Artistic/Entertainment Value

Moral/Spiritual Value

+2 / -2

Age Appropriateness


MPAA Rating


Caveat Spectator

Constant vulgarity, obscenity, and profanity; sexual references and innuendo; some comic menace.

The 1999 Oscar-sweeping American Beauty, starring Kevin Spacey as an outwardly successful but inwardly emasculated suburban husband and father in a dysfunctional family who finally snaps and demands to be taken seriously, is a black comedy of the first type. The Ref, which was made five years earlier, also features Kevin Spacey as an outwardly successful but inwardly emasculated suburban husband and father in a dysfunctional family who finally snaps and demands to be taken seriously. But where American Beauty is an out-and-out broadside against traditional middle-American social mores, The Ref has a soft heart of domesticity underneath its superficially heartless humor.

A pity it’s not a brilliant film, only a pretty entertaining one. If it had been just a bit stronger, it could have offered a moral counterpart to the acclaimed but cold-hearted Beauty; as it is, it provides an interesting counterpoint. The Ref has its moments, and they’re funny moments, but the film’s premise had potential that was never quite realized. The premise is a peach, though. That, and crackling performances from the three leads, make The Ref worth watching — unless of course you don’t care for black comedy of any sort, or the crass language that can accompany it.

Here is a test to see if The Ref is for you. Lloyd and Caroline Chausser (Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis) are hosting a rather dysfunctional family Christmas dinner, and some relatives have just arrived. A young nephew quickly assesses, to his horror, that the television seems to be broken, and whines incredulously to his mother, "What are we supposed to do?" and she, whacking him on the arm, snaps: "Celebrate the birth of Christ!"

If this strikes you as simply irreverent and offensive, don’t bother seeing The Ref. But if you can appreciate the merit in a movie satirizing a character’s lack of reverence, you may enjoy this clever little film from director Ted Demme.

The setup: Lloyd and Caroline are in marriage counseling, which they need desperately — too much, in fact, to possibly benefit from it. They spit bitterly contemptuous barbs at one another: He harps on her extramarital affair, while she elaborately belittles his virility. The truly impotent figure in this scenario, though, is the counselor himself, with his nonjudgmental questions and therapeutic techniques — methods that might be of some use to some few who really want to change, but are pitifully inadequate in the face of problems as deep-rooted as the Chaussers’. They don’t need a facilitator, they need something more like a spiritual director — someone to put them in their places, to tell them in no uncertain terms when they’re wrong; someone they won’t be able to ignore.

Well, they don’t get a spiritual director. What they do get is Gus (comic Dennis Leary), a frustrated burglar who’s already been having a horrible night — or thinks he has. It’s Christmastime; his latest heist has gone terribly wrong; the police are closing in; and, in a desperate bid to avoid capture, he decides to carjack a pair of hostages and use their house as a hideout. It’s a decision he’ll come to regret, as the line between abuser and abused becomes increasingly smudged this way and that, with shades of both O. Henry’s The Ransom of Red Chief (the classic story about kidnappers who bite off more than they can chew) and The Stockholm Syndrome (that strange bond that sometimes develops between hostages and their captors).

How do the Chaussers react to being taken prisoner? At first, it’s only one more thing for them to fight about. Gus is incredulous: "I don’t believe this — I hijacked my @%#&*!$ parents." Although he’s the one with the gun, he finds it surprisingly difficult to assert control of the situation; and he tries, with the desperately elaborate patience of an exasperated parent, to make the Chaussers understand their position: "From now on, the only person who gets to yell is me. Why? Because I have a gun. People with guns get to do whatever they want. Married people without guns — for instance, you — do not get to yell! Why? No guns! No guns, no yelling! See? Simple little equation!"

Finally, when even this fails, Gus is driven at last to arbitrate — a role for which he is much better equipped than the marriage counselor, not only because he has a gun, but also because he is willing and able to tell them point blank, so to speak, when they are wrong. And when the rest of the Chausser clan begins to arrive for Christmas dinner, Gus has to actually impersonate the Chausser’s marriage counselor. I’m tempted to try to communicate how funny some of this is, but I’d probably only end up spoiling more lines. By this point you should have some idea whether or not the film’s humor is likely to appeal to you.

The film has some weaknesses. There’s a bit of dead wood, like a subplot involving the extracurricular activities of the Chaussers’ son. More importantly, while Gus gets the best lines in some scenes, in other scenes the film almost forgets he’s there. On the other hand, even these scenes are thoughtful and well-written. The film even gives a tip of the hat to that perennial Christmas favorite, It’s a Wonderful Life. All in all, The Ref is pretty good — good enough to make you wish it were even better.



American Beauty (1999)

Some movies have a moral. I say that as a mere statement of fact, with no implication that either having or not having a moral necessarily makes a movie better or worse. Some movies have a moral; American Beauty - and this is also a mere observation, not a value judgment - has an aesthetic.