Every family has their tradition when it comes to the holidays. Ever since I was a kid, we would celebrate with my father's side of the family on Christmas Eve, and then with my mother's side on Christmas Day, a tradition that has remained unchanged to this day. There is one tradition that we added on Christmas Eve night, maybe a decade or so ago, after my younger twin brothers and I would come back to my mom's house after spending the day with our father. We would watch the obscure 1994 R-rated Christmas comedy The Ref. Not It's A Wonderful Life or A Christmas Story or A Miracle of 41st Street, but an underrated and underseen comedy starring Denis Leary, post-Remote Control, Kevin Spacey, pre-Oscar win and Judy Davis, post-Oscar nomination. While The Ref may not be as revered as those aforementioned movies, I will always watch The Ref every Christmas Eve, not only because it's actually set on December 24, but because it continues to age incredibly well.
I was 17 years old whenThe Ref hit theaters in 1994, but I didn't see it until a few years later, when I came across a mom-and-pop video store that was having a going-out-of-business sale back in the summer of 1996. I took home an armful of VHS tapes that day, such as Ransom and CB-4, but I remember being particularly excited about The Ref. For wannabe wise-asses like me, Denis Leary was a god in the 1990s from his numerous appearances on MTV and his hilarious 1992 Showtime stand-up special No Cure for Cancer. He was starting to get his footing in the movie biz as well, with roles as the salty stepdad in The Sandlot and the brutal gangster in Judgment Night (another underrated 90s gem, by the way), but I was instantly enamored with The Ref, since it was then, and still is to this day, one of the funniest movies I've ever seen. It's a story that takes an unconventional look at the family dynamic during the hectic Christmas season, with heart and humor to spare, and brilliant performances across the board.
For those deprived souls who have yet to watch The Ref - which I assume is most of you, although you have no excuse since it's been on Netflix for more than a year - here's what it's about. The story is set in the affluent town of Old Baybrook, Connecticut, where we first meet Lloyd (Kevin Spacey) and Caroline Chausseur (Judy Davis), who are undergoing another marriage counseling session with Dr. Wong (B.D. Wong), which quickly gets out of hand as this couple can't stop bickering with each other. Meanwhile, across town, Gus (Denis Leary) is busy cracking the safe of the town's eccentric amusement park tycoon. While he has managed to crack the safe and steal a number of jewels and other items, he spots a large ring in the back of the safe, which turns out to be a booby trap, that sets off the alarm, and scares off his much-older partner Murray (Richard Bright), who was supposed to be waiting in the getaway car for him. After Gus escapes, he comes across Caroline in a store, shopping for their big family Christmas Eve dinner that night, and decides to take her, and her husband, hostage, which, as he finds out, is a huge mistake.
The film is expertly written by Marie Weiss and Richard LaGravanese, her brother-in-law, which was based on both of their families. According to a New York Times piece from 1994, which may offer the most insight into the now-obscure film's production, Marie started writing the script in 1989 before consulting with her brother-in-law in 1991, with Disney reportedly picking up the script 20 minutes into the pitch meeting. Richard was coming off his critically-acclaimed film The Fisher King, his second ever produced film which landed him his first and only Oscar nomination, although he would go on to achieve much success writing films such as The Bridges of Madison County, The Mirror Has Two Faces, The Horse Whisperer, Beloved, P.S. I Love You, Water For Elephants, HBO's Behind the Candelabra, Unbroken and the upcoming film The Comedian, starring Robert De Niro. While Marie Weiss hasn't found the same success, with her only other produced credit the 1997 TV movie The Christmas List starring Mimi Rogers, The Ref still stands the test of time as an incredible piece of writing, with this Sorkin-esque dialogue delivered to perfection by a stellar cast, which also includes Christine Baranski, Glynis Johns, Raymond J. Barry, Vincent Pastore, and marks the feature film debut of Oscar winner J.K. Simmons.
I honestly can't remember if there was something specific that happened that lead me to bring my DVD of The Ref home every year for Christmas, but I do remember that, at first, it used to be The Ref, Bad Santa and the Christmas Time in South Park compilation. Sure, on Christmas morning, or later that night, we'd often pop in more traditional Christmas movies, but at some point on every Christmas Eve, The Ref would find its way into the DVD player, and my mother, step-father, and brothers would all sit and watch it, usually followed by Bad Santa or the South Park episodes, depending on how late it was. Then, after a few years, I stopped bringing Bad Santa and the South Park DVD, and it just became The Ref, again, for no particular reason, except maybe that we just didn't have enough time to watch all three DVD's, but I think a lot of it is that Bad Santa just doesn't stand the test of time like The Ref does.
For me, The Ref is one of a handful of movies, such as Major League and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, that I've seen so many times I can practically recite them by heart. You won't find The Ref on any all-time "best of" lists, nor will you likely find many pieces like this, singing this movie's praises, but I implore you, if you're looking to shake things up this holiday season, give The Ref a chance, and maybe you'll be watching this unconventional holiday film every Christmas Eve, just like I do.