The Ref

Acerbic funnyman Denis Leary gets to show a softer, sexier side in this comedy of marital errors. It's about time. Leary played a psycho killer in Judgment Night, a psycho rebel in Demolition Man and a psycho stepfather in The Sandlot — you kept thinking he was going to whack the kid for stealing his Babe Ruth-autographed baseball. In The Ref, Leary plays a sleek cat burglar named Gus. He's not Cary Grant exactly — it's hard to recall Grant calling anyone a "fucking cock-sucker" — but Gus has a rep for clean getaways and a touching yen to go straight.

On Christmas Eve, while Gus is robbing an estate in Connecticut, an alarm goes off. The cops drop a net around the neighborhood. That's when Gus makes the mistake of taking refuge in the home of a married couple he's holding hostage. Lloyd Chasseur (Kevin Spacey) and his wife, Carolyn (Judy Davis), never stop arguing Any topic will do — his limp dick, her huge sexual appetite. Gus can't shut these vipers up. He pulls a gun, they bicker. He threatens their student son, Jesse (Robert J. Steinmiller, Jr.), they bicker. He threatens Lloyd's tyrannical mother, Rose (Glynis Johns), who shows, up with the family tribe for holiday dinner, they bicker. This nightmare couple can't communicate without a ref. To save his ass, Gus is forced to play marriage counselor.

That's the joke — the only one — and screenwriters Richard LaGravenese and Marie Weiss stretch it to the breaking point before The Ref calls it quits. Director Ted Demme (Jonathan Demme's nephew) compensates with a whiplash pace that suggests the cutthroat fun of Ruthless People. The Ref unproves on the director's awkward debut film, Who's the Man?, which starred Ed Lover and Dr. Dre, the hosts of Ted Demme's Yo! MTV Raps.

Demme brings out the comic ease in Leary, whose concert film, No Cure for Cancer, he directed. But the real luck is getting Davis (Husbands and Wires) and Spacey (Glengarry Glen Ross) to class up this trash. They are combustibly funny, finding nuance even in nonsense. The script is crass; the actors never. They keep The Ref from going down for the count.

From The Archives Issue 199: November 6, 1975
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