'The Ref' is a great idea that's undone by too many bad ideas

March 11, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

"The Ref" has a nice evil idea, borrowed from O.Henry's "Ransom of Red Chief" as, possibly, rewritten by the Marquis de Sade. Alas, it soon dissolves all this beautiful wickedness under a bucketful of good feelings. As it disappears you can almost hear its pitiful cry: "I'm melting."

Neat, crisp setup: Small-time thief Denis Leary gets in bad trouble when a job in the suburbs goes wrong and, stumbling to evade the cops, he pulls his gun and carjacks a nice upscale couple in a Volvo. Further pursued, he orders them to put up at their own house. The only problem: Nice couple turns out to be enmeshed in the marriage from hell. In fact, so potent is the bitter brew of enmity between Caroline and Lloyd Chasseur that it slops out completely irrespective of any danger they may be in.

That's funny: On their backs, tied to chairs, a maniac with a Beretta steaming at them, they cannot stop bickering. They are to bickering what Tonya Harding is to ice skating.

This first third of the film is by far the movie's bleakest and funniest bit: The rancor and the hatred, the venom and the bile are like vapors foaming out at such volume that the outlaw himself is stunned and disoriented. It helps enormously that mean-spirited screenwriters Richard LaGravense and Maria Weiss have assembled some really nasty zingers, and that the two actors as the Chasseurs -- Judy Davis and Kevin Spacey -- rise to the occasion with heroic meanness of spirit.

The trouble with "The Ref" is that it keeps running out of steam, so it seems to develop a new plot wrinkle every seven minutes. Typically, it'll run through the new idea until it runs out of steam again, then invents yet another one. One feels it continually re-imagining itself, and as the minutes flee by, the re-imaginings become thinner and thinner.

Soon not only is Leary awkwardly in command of this dysfunctional couple, but the whole dysfunctional extended family, including the awful child, the awful brother and his wife and kids, and the truly awful mother of them all (Glynis Johns).

More snippets of plot wander in: There's even a drunken Santa Claus, a disgraced military man, a soon-to-be-fired police lieutenant and a lonely woman on a boat. And did I tell you: It's Christmas Eve.

Ultimately, the film turns into a lugubrious family therapy session. It's like a road-show version of the last act of "Long Day's Journey Into Night" as performed by mutants. In its final invocation, the man with the gun has become the best family counselor on earth and the huggy-huggy is going ballistic. The milk of human kindness is gushing everywhere; love is in the air. How disgusting!

"The Ref"

Starring Denis Leary, Judy Davis and Kevin Spacey

Directed by Ted Demme

Released by Touchstone

R-rated

** 1/2

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