Hell is Christmas with Other People

I wait for it, every holiday season. I scan the list of best Christmas movies and it’s not there. What about guilty pleasures, or even bad Christmas movies? Nope. How long will this travesty continue? How long will the world ignore the greatest Christmas movie ever made? ref

I speak, of course, of The Ref.

I have made it one of my missions in life to spread the word about this fine film. Still, I feel it’s a losing battle, and I don’t understand it. You have a great cast: Kevin Spacey, Judy Davis, Christine Baranski, Glynis Johns, supporting players you would recognize from a host of other films, and the star of the film, if not the best actor, Denis Leary. (I know he might be an acquired taste, but he always cracks me up, and I loved the first three seasons of Rescue Me. Last season was a little weaker, though I still eagerly await the next season. And his earlier TV show The Job [now on DVD] is also a hoot. Here’s a clip of DL talking about some of his films, including The Ref.) You have co-screenwriter Richard LaGravenese, who has written or co-written a number of big-name – if not always successful – films, such as Beloved, The Fisher King, The Bridges of Madison County, and The Horse Whisperer. Director Ted Demme has given us TV episodes, feature films, and documentaries (none of blockbuster status, sure, but the guy is no hack). And still, The Ref sits unappreciated; yet I think it’s more relevant as the years go by.

Not my Christmas in Connecticut

Not my Christmas in Connecticut

I think part of the problem stems from its initial release. It wasn’t marketed as a Christmas movie, coming out after the 1993-1994 holiday season. I’m sure the studio did not think people would want to see a profane film about crooks and a dysfunctional family subverting our Christmas in Connecticut views of the holiday. (The film’s tony Connecticut setting is no accident, and leads to Gus’s [Denis Leary] great line about the Nutmeg State being the 5th ring of hell. Something some suburban CT natives can truly appreciate.) I mean, the film opens with a quick segue from the idyllic Christmas-Eve scene in a Norman Rockwell town to Spacey and Davis bickering at their marriage therapist’s. Leave aside the improbability of a therapist having office hours at 6 pm  on December 24. The scene is great, peppered with venom-filled lines that still make me laugh. And if you’re a fan of caustic dialogue at the expense of marriage, the family, and traditions (and satire of the same as well), then The Ref just keeps on delivering the hits.

But what makes The Ref a great Christmas movie is that in the end, everything turns out right. This is not just expletive-laden family-and-Christmas-bashing. The holiday spirit is revealed to dwell in even the most cynical of us all. Or almost all. Now, this is not a perfect movie. At least one scene involving the fumbling police always makes me squirm with that “I hate seeing people do stupid things” feeling, and it does not advance the plot. And some of the couple’s rehashing of how they got to this point – close to divorce with a delinquent son – starts to run a little long. But just as we hit that lull, the cops-and-robbers plot line reinserts itself and propels us to that feel-good ending.

The Ref has many great lines, often fueled by the Leary-being-Leary delivery. But the others dish the bile just as well. What can I say, I have been bitten by the bug and there is no cure. I love The Ref and will continue to watch it every year. My only regret is that I don’t have little ones to share it with, to start a family tradition that they can pass down, surely as apt and American as watching It’s A Wonderful Life year after year. As Gus would say, Merry F***ing Christmas, everybody.


~ by mburgan on December 25, 2008.

One Response to “Hell is Christmas with Other People”

  1. That sure is a great film! I could have used The Ref at my house on Christmas Eve – it was a nightmare!

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