In the early 1990s, stand-up comedian Denis Leary's career was taking off thanks to MTV. Starring in a series of short black and white films, Leary would appear pacing the streets of New York and delivering rapid-fire verbal assaults on a host of subjects. The films helped shape Leary's comic persona - he was the angry rant guy - and made him something of a household name. So, like so many successful stand-up comics before him, Leary set off to launch a film career.
After appearing in a small, shouting role as a police captain in director Ted Demme's first movie, the forgettable Who's the Man? (starring MTV's Dr. Dre and Ed Lover), Leary was given a shot at leading man status with 1994's The Ref. Reuniting Leary with Demme, the movie features the comic as Gus, a cat burglar attempting a robbery on Christmas Eve. When the robbery goes awry -- as movie robberies so often do -- Gus goes on the run, eventually abducting a woman (Judy Davis) at gunpoint and forcing her to bring him home to hide out.
The problem with this plan is that woman is Caroline Chasseur, who we have already seen is in marriage counseling with her husband, Lloyd (Kevin Spacey). Caroline and Lloyd are well-off suburbanites who, quite simply, can't stand each other anymore and do nothing but chip away at one another every chance they can get. Compiling the problem is that their troublemaker son, Jesse, is home from military school and their awful, awful extended family is all coming over for Christmas dinner. But, with the cops blocking every exit, Gus has no choice but stay inside and play referee with a group of people he can't stand almost as much as they can't stand each other.
There's a whole lot to like about The Ref, one of those comedies that few people have seen but all of that have have liked. The script, by famous screenwriter Richard LaGravanese, is quick and incredibly witty. The performances by Judy Davis and Kevin Spacey (most of America didn't really discover Spacey until Seven and The Usual Suspects, but only because they weren't paying attention when The Ref was released) are brilliant, constantly shifting between loathsome to likable; from pathetic to sympathetic. Both are hysterical, and find some of the most creative ways to insult one another ever committed to celluloid.
Then there's Leary. Though The Ref didn't really make a movie star out of the comic, it did confirm that he was the real deal. Essentially playing a variation on his angry ranting guy (he even lapses into one of his rants at one point, though it feels shoehorned in), Leary wisely takes a back seat in many of the scenes and lets Davis and Spacey do the heavy lifting. Credit to director Demme for knowing just how and when and to use him; he becomes the audience surrogate -- the lone voice of reason in a sea of self-involved, despicable people. That he's a criminal only makes this idea funnier.
Leary would reunite with Demme one more time for 1998's straight forward crime drama Monument Ave. The collaboration was less successful, mostly because it drained the spark out of Leary. He's at his best in The Ref, where he's allowed to be dark and fast and funny. Just like the movie itself.
Original Release Date: March 9, 1994