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The Ref (March 4/03)

The Ref is a really bizarre amalgam of outlandish comedy and searing family drama, but it works - thanks primarily to the exceedingly enjoyable performances.

The film opens with a thief named Gus (Denis Leary) attempting to steal some expensive jewelry from a wealthy homeowner, but instead winds up sprayed with cat urine and left face-to-face with a mean dog. He manages to extricate himself from that delicate situation, and because of all the cops that are now after him, he's forced to take a couple hostage. But that turns out to be a big mistake, as said couple (played by Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis) are perpetually arguing with each other and (as if that wasn't bad enough) they're expecting family over for Christmas dinner.

The Ref is an exceedingly difficult movie to categorize, given that it comfortably leaps between comedy and drama throughout. But that's exactly what makes the film so interesting; it hasn't been assembled by focus groups or a board of executives. There's a certain amount of uniqueness present in the movie, mostly due to the surprisingly adult and clever screenplay by Richard LaGravenese and Marie Weiss. No doubt a good portion of Leary's dialogue was improvised, though, as it contains a lot of the snarky one-liners we've come to expect from the former comic.

But the heart of the film is the odd dynamic between Spacey and Davis. Though they spend the majority of the movie's running time arguing, the core of their relationship is clearly based on a mutual respect for one another. And the two actors have never been better, particularly Spacey. Since he's become a movie star, Spacey's been taking fewer chances and essentially playing safe characters. But that's certainly not the case here, as Spacey's performance deftly walks a fine line between comedy and tragedy. And, of course, some mention has to be made of Leary. Though he's essentially here to act as the catalyst that gets Spacey and Davis' marriage back on track, he provides the film with its biggest laughs (personal favorite: after eating a stale cookie shaped like Christ, he mutters "Jesus" under his breath).

The Ref didn't do much business upon it's original release, but has since accumulated a cult following on video. There's a good reason for this; it's the sort of movie that improves on repeated viewings.

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