Family Feud A Fate Worse Than Jail For `The Ref'

Movie review

XXX "The Ref," with Denis Leary, Judy Davis, Kevin Spacey, Glynis Johns. Directed by Ted Demme, from a screenplay by Richard LaGravenese and Marie Weiss. Alderwood, Aurora, Crossroads, Everett Mall, Factoria, Gateway, Lewis & Clark, Metro Cinemas. "R" - Restricted because of profanity, mature humor. -----------------------------------------------------------------

It's been quite awhile since Caroline Chasseur (Judy Davis) made love with her husband, Lloyd (Kevin Spacey), and the last time they had sex it was not - as Caroline freely admits to their marriage counselor - "noteworthy."

"It took the same amount of time it takes me to make a cup of cappuccino," the miserable wife continues. "I know, because I timed it."

And with that, "The Ref" jumps out of the starting gate as the funniest, most rabidly ruthless comedy of the year so far. Try to imagine what it would be like if you crossed a Don Rickles roast with "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," and you'll understand how the Chasseurs and their dysfunctional family can turn Christmas Eve into the holiday from hell.

That's bad news for Gus (Denis Leary), a jewel thief who bungles what was supposed to be his last heist, and winds up hiding from the cops in the Chasseurs' well-appointed home in an exclusive Connecticut neighborhood. While waiting for an accomplice to arrange his getaway, Gus becomes a reluctant mediator in a bitter family feud involving the Chasseurs' teenage extortionist son, Lloyd's joyless siblings and their wealthy, domineering mother (Glynis Johns), whose personality could humble the queen beast from "Aliens."

The manhunt that keeps Gus stuck in this chamber of familial horrors is a bit flimsy as a plot device, but as Gus continues to be "The Ref" for his acerbic hosts, his captivity turns into a kind of purgatory, and Leary - expanding on the biting sarcasm of his infamous comedy spots on MTV - is hilarious as he struggles to gain release from people who are simmering in the good life he never had.

As evident in his dialogue for "The Fisher King," co-writer Richard LaGravenese has cornered the market on rapier wit, and "The Ref" was written for rapid-fire delivery, packing a hundred snappy comebacks into a breathlessly outrageous 90 minutes, during which Davis and Spacey develop a caustic rapport that favorably compares to the finest pairings in the history of screwball comedy.

It's miraculous casting, and the Australian Davis - for my money the finest actress around, bar none - is simply uncanny in her command of East Coast gentility combined with razor-sharp timing and comedic expression. Between Leary, Davis, Spacey and Johns, director Ted Demme (nephew of Jonathan, and director of Leary's MTV spots) has captured lightning in a bottle, and "The Ref" has enough subtle and not-so-subtle interplay to make a repeat viewing worthwhile.

Not even a drunken Santa Claus can dampen the yuletide spirit, however, and even though "The Ref" lacks the uncompromising darkness of "The War of the Roses," it's only because the Chasseurs see their bickering family as something worth saving. Given what they're willing to put up with, it would be Grinch-like to disagree.