The Ref (1994)

the ref

I have never heard of such a Christmas: sex, and drugs, and, and, and, and women being set on fire!

The Scoop: 1994 R, directed by Ted Demme and starring Denis Leary, Kevin Spacey, and Judy Davis

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

Summary Capsule: An abortive burglary forces Leary to kidnap an antagonistic couple and their extended family.

Justin’s rating: Kinda like that time when you went to see Santa in the mall as a kid, got hoisted onto his lap, and felt pleasantly warm and snuggly, unaware of the fact that Santa’s actually an ex-con named “Slasher” who’d rather get a couple grams of illegal drugs and some vodka instead of milk and cookies on Christmas Eve. . . so why not invite him into your house?

Justin’s review: My friend Lance is solely responsible for getting me and our college suite hooked on this great Christmas movie. Maybe this was the type of Christmas he was more accustomed to: dysfunctional family members bickering and arguing about who killed who, plus Dennis Leary swearing up a storm in the background.

Gus (Leary) is a cat burglar who’s not having the best of Christmases. On a routine burglary, he gets squirted in the face with a cat pee-booby trap, cornered by a vicious dog, and his cowardly partner flees the scene. Forced to hide out in a small Connecticut upper class ‘burb while the police hunt him down on Christmas Eve, Gus makes the worst mistake of all: holding hostage a family with enough angst to sink the Titanic.

The hostages in question are Lloyd (Kevin Spacey), a frustrated and emasculated husband; Caroline (Judy Davis) as the frustrated ex-smoking wife who recently had an unsatisfying affair; and their military school-reject son Jesse. Even in the midst of a situation that would normally have us terrified (more of second-hand smoke that Leary spews than his gun-waving), mom and dad claw each other in antic verbal attacks, using every minute of the crisis to work out some personal demons. And Gus… poor, poor Gus… well, he goes from being the man in charge to a therapy counselor.

As Gus tries to stay on top of the situation, family members continue to pour into the house. It’s just not his day. If Lloyd and Caroline’s bickering doesn’t amuse you (and it should), Gus’ constant rants should fill a void in your life that is deeply missing. He adjusts to every new circumstance, and he hoses down the bickering couple when they keep ripping into each other. As with most outrageous comedies, The Ref keeps escalating to the point of explosion, and Leary stays on top of it all. The verbal fights are incredibly hilarious, clever sight gags pop up, and each character is well-portrayed: the haggard burglar, the repressed father, the indecisive mother, the blackmailing son, the timid uncle, the abusive wife, the drunk Santa. . . it just goes on and on.

Best performance, however, is easily taken by the wealthy, stingy, mean old crab of the grandmother who makes everyone’s life a living hell. It’s a riot to see even Gus horrified by her vicious and repulsive nature (the best example of which is when grandma gives one of the children boxer shorts for a present, and then says, “They’re husky size. You mustn’t let your weight become a problem!”). I also can’t stop my cackling glee when she gives perhaps the most horrendous sweater in the history of the world to one of her children — and yes, it’s even worse than most of Bill Cosby’s sweaters.

I can’t recommend The Ref enough. It might not have that sappy sweet Christmas fare that you’re used to with It’s A Wonderful Christmas Story On 34th Street and all, but we all recognize that Christmas is usually more than good times and feelings. Quite often, it’s a gross experiment in pressuring people to share in family love and ignoring all the problems simmering underneath. As that may be, The Ref is an excellent excuse to vent some Christmas wrath through vicarious video viewing.

Andie’s rating: Slipper socks, medium

Andie’s review: I saw The Ref a few years ago and after watching it once, I went out and bought it and forced all my friends to watch it right away. Within a week, I’d seen it probably eight times. It still never fails to crack me up, it’s definitely my favorite Christmas movie.

The idea is that cat burgler Gus (Denis Leary) needs a place to hide out for awhile, so he takes a couple hostage, Lloyd and Caroline Chaucer (Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis). What he doesn’t know is that he kidnapped the psychotic couple from hell. Not only do they argue, but they can’t even stop arguing once Gus has a gun in their faces. The three of them provide some of the funniest banter I’ve ever heard. As the night wears on, Gus has to deal with their son Jesse, and Lloyd’s brother Gary’s family. But the character who takes the cake is Lloyd and Gary’s mom, Mother Rose. This woman makes Satan look like Barney. She is the absolute queen of manipulation and guilt trips and the really scary part is that my dad’s mom is a lot like her. I call her my Wicked Witch of the West Grandma.

But anyway, this movie just keeps the laughs constantly coming, from the arguing couple to the insane grandma to the bungling police to the drunk off his ass Santa Claus. If you’re looking for a night of awesome comedy, I recommend a double feature of this and Noises Off.

Kevin Spacey, now with Exterior Lumination!



  • There’s a few characters in this movie who went on to star in HBO’s OZ, including B.D. Wong and J.K. Simmons
  • The foreign title of this film was changed to “No Panic”. It was also previously titled “Hostile Hostages” in the states.
  • Slipper socks, ugly sweaters, husky undies, and candle headgear.
  • One of the best and largely unnoticed jokes in this film is the family’s constant correction of people mispronouncing their last name, and then quickly explaining where their last name came from. Down right obsessive!
  • The original ending had Denis Leary being caught by the cops to show the son that a life of crime leads nowhere. However, after screening the movie to a test audience and receiving negative comments about the ending, director Ted Demme changed it. He admitted he regretted changing it.
  • Director Ted Demme died in January 2002. In addition to The Ref, he also directed Beautiful Girls, Snitch, and Blow.
  • When casting the roles of a couple it is traditional to have the actors to screentest together to see if there is any chemistry. However, Kevin and Judy Davis didn’t meet until the first day of shooting because Judy was in Los Angeles filming The New Age and Kevin was performing Playland off-Broadway. Kevin says this about it: “The surprising fact is that Judy and I never met until after we were cast. – something of a risk on the part of the producers and director. She couldn’t fly east and I couldn’t fly west. I’m sure that before our first rehearsal the producers were biting their fingernails for fear that we wouldn’t have the chemistry they’d hoped for.”
  • The crew used a total of 450 candles during the filming of the infamous candle wreaths scene.

Groovy Quotes

Lloyd: In the 9th grade we told him he could get a part-time job. You ready for what he did? He started an escort service for the football team, and he gave out my mother’s phone number!
Caroline: And I say that getting laid by an 18-year old linebacker is JUST WHAT SHE NEEDS!
Caroline: How can we both be in the marriage and I’m miserable and you’re content?
Lloyd: Luck?

Gus: 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.

Caroline: I had this dream…
Lloyd: Do we have to do dreams?
Caroline: I’m in this restaurant, and the waiter brings me my entree. It was a salad. It was Lloyd’s head on a plate of spinach with his penis sticking out of his ear. And I said, “I didn’t order this.” And the waiter said, “Oh you must try it, it’s a delicacy. But don’t eat the penis, it’s just garnish.”
Dr. Wong: Lloyd, what do you think about the dream?
Lloyd: I think she should stop telling it at dinner parties to all our friends.

Gus: You know what this family needs? A mute.

Rose: You’re a “Wang”?
Gus: Well, my mother was Irish.
Rose: And your father?
Gus: Wasn’t.

Lloyd: You know what I’m going to get you next Christmas, Mom? A big wooden cross, so that every time you feel unappreciated for your sacrifices, you can climb on up and nail yourself to it.

Gus: Your husband ain’t dead, lady; he’s hidin’.

Gus: Connecticut is the fifth ring of hell.

Lloyd: I suppose you’ll use this drama as a reason to have another affair. I feel sorry for the next delivery man that comes to this house!

Gus: I have a gun. It’s loaded. Shut up.

Gus: Look kid… what I do, running around, stealing stuff, may sound great when you’re fourteen years old, but it sucks just a little bit when you’re thirty-five. No house. No family. I got a partner who’s fifty… he still can’t understand why they took “Happy Days” off the air.

Rose: Sounds too sweet!
Caroline: Then don’t eat it!

Gus: The Army?! What am I, Oswald, here?

Caroline: You’re the one who suffocated him with limitations. Our son’s a very sensative, creative…
Lloyd: Juvenile delinquent.
Caroline: ….boy. He has the kind of imagination…
Lloyd: That the Mafia gives scholarships for.

Lloyd: Coffee, Mom?
Rose: Is it real coffee? Or some scandanavian Christmas potion?

Gus: I thought moms we’re supposed to be nice, and sweet, and patient. I know loan-sharks that are more forgiving than you.

George: What, you’re pulling a gun on me? I’m not afraid of you.
Gus: Just calm down, alright?
George: You think you can take me? I’m Santa Claus!

George: Santa can’t drink any more milk tonight. Santa has a lactose intolerance, it gives him horrible gas pains. You wanna see Santa farting down everyone’s chimney?

Connie: I have never heard of such a Christmas: sex, and drugs, and, and, and, and women being set on fire!

Mary: Maybe they’ll catch him and let him go in the spirit of Christmas.
Connie: That’s not the spirit of Christmas. The spirit of Christmas is either you’re good or you’re punished and you burn in hell.

Caroline: Humans get frightened because they have feelings. Didn’t your alien leaders teach you that before they sent you here?

Lloyd: I don’t believe it. You wanna have sex with him.
Caroline: What?
Lloyd: [mimicking Caroline) “Use the ouchless, we have bungie cords”

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