Film * Ted Demme * White People Problems * 1994
Many people have movies they watch every year at Christmas. The Ref is mine, which I’m sure says something about me as a person. It used to be A Christmas Story, but I kind of don’t even need to watch that one anymore, I can just close my eyes and there it is, playing on a loop, but I didn’t say ‘fudge’. Why this relatively obscure choice, though? Part of the reasoning is good old fashioned nineties nostalgia – something that comes up from time to time. I mean, it’s a vehicle for Denis Leary. It doesn’t get much more 90’s than that. Look, I know there is a real in-crowd comedian controversy surrounding Leary and Bill Hicks and whatever, but I was not into Bill Hicks as a teenager. I was never that cool. I liked Denis Leary because that’s what I saw. Don’t you judge me. Anyway, I don’t even know that when I first started watching this movie that I classified it as a ‘Christmas movie,’ even though it obviously is (it doesn’t help that the film originally came out in March, which seems like the studio actively drowning it in the bathtub). It was just on a lot, and Leary was there swearing a bunch.
That’s not the point of the movie, though. This very much seems like a dry run for American Beauty, which would not come out for another five years. The thru-line there is Kevin Spacey, who is basically playing the same guy in both films. Make a note that this is not a bad thing. Spacey won an Oscar for American Beauty, after all. The Ref is a much rougher film, and lacks pretty much all the pretension of American Beauty. Again, not a bad thing. While I enjoy and appreciate that film – I will probably write about it in the not-too-distant future – I don’t watch it every year. This is because what The Ref lacks in Oscar-worthy pretension, it makes up for by being fucking funny.
Try not to worry about the actual plot. There is a point to the structure of the film, but if you think about it too hard it’s super easy to point out instances where things make no sense at all. Here’s the basic story: Lloyd and Caroline are a middle-aged couple having marital problems. They argue. Lots. They live in a small Connecticut town and it’s Christmas and picturesque. Meanwhile there’s a cat burglar afoot! He runs afoul of a trap while trying to burgle an estate, and is desperate for a car. So he kidnaps Lloyd and Caroline, and takes them hostage in their own home. But look out, the extended family is on its way for Christmas dinner and cell phones aren’t a thing because it’s 1994! Hilarity ensues.
None of that is really the point, though. Like, why would even a small Connecticut town do a door-to-door search for a burglar on Christmas Eve? Then there’s a dozen or so times when the whole hostage thing would fall apart immediately, and whatever. It’s not important. What is important is the relationship between Lloyd and Caroline, why they’re so dysfunctional, and why what happened in the past colors the present. The extended family, particularly Lloyd’s mother, appear because they help give the extended discussions of this couple’s past context. Meanwhile, there’s other minor things happening in the background which are there to gently make fun of rich, white, privileged people. Mostly, however, The Ref is an examination one of these outwardly affluent and successful families, The Chasseurs (that’s 18th century French Huguenot), and why they’re so unhappy.
It should be made fundamentally clear that this movie is about the problems of upper-middle-class white people. These are not poor, unemployed Rust Belt survivors pining for the lost days of industrial might and a healthy middle class. Lack of money is not the problem here. On the contrary, The Ref veers into Dickens territory and paints the abundance of riches as the real issue. The problems of these folks are not life and death, far from it, however the problems they are grappling with here take root in the soul. Money and comfort, as seen here, lead to corruption of the heart at worst, and an unending existential unhappiness at best. From the point of view of someone struggling just to live, these must seem like nice problems to have. However, on a larger scale, these are the problems of civilization that humanity has been grappling with ever since we stopped having to live in caves.
The further removed from the basics of survival we get, the more abstract our existence becomes. That sounds deep, but don’t worry I’m not that smart. The point is, once we’re removed from having to spend most of our time procuring food, water, and shelter, we’re free to embark on other, less concrete things. This is the bedrock of civilization. Survival becomes more abstract. We still have to live, but we do so by trading our labor for money – both abstract concepts – for food, water, and shelter. For a long time this labor was aimed at either food production or building things. Work that tied the laborer to something concrete, even if their actions were still an abstraction from day-to-day survival activities. As we move ever onward, that work becomes more and more abstracted from physical reality. In terms of this movie – which I remind you is a goofy (and dark) Christmas comedy – it ends with a doughy middle-aged man stuck running his mother’s antique store. For this, he lives in a giant Connecticut palace surrounded by fancy shit. Under the surface of daily routine, this is extremely troubling for those who live in the palace.
A big problem with writing about The Ref is that the best parts of the movie are extended scenes of dialogue which are difficult to transcribe. For instance, there is an exchange between Gus, the world-weary burglar, and Lloyd in which Gus vents his disgust with affluence:
“I hate guys like you. You know? With your Jeep Grand Cherokees and your Nicaraguan maids and your Ping-Zing golf clubs. Every goddamn thing in the world handed to you. I mean, what fuckin’ purpose do you people serve?”
“You’re a criminal. What possible purpose could you serve?”
“Fuck you, Lloyd. I work for a living, okay? I have a skill. I’m in the game, pal. What do you do, except take up fuckin’ space?”
That’s an excellent question! And it’s a question Lloyd has evidently spent a lot of time trying to figure out himself, even if he’s defensive and combative here. This self-disgust is bubbling throughout the entire film, and is the corrosive element that is dissolving the family unit. Gus, who despite being a criminal is still working class, arrives as a catalyst to push beyond social formalities and forces The Chasseurs to look plainly at their lives. The climax of the movie is a confrontation between Lloyd and Caroline as they finally, and forcefully, figure out just what happened to make them so miserable amidst so much material wealth.
It turns out that money diverted dreams and ambition. Lloyd and Caroline attempted to build something of their own, something they could be proud of. In this case it was restaurant. The first attempt failed (“when the Restaurant Guidebook of New York recommends you to Hindus looking for a fun night out of fasting, what do you want me to do? Change the menu?”). However, instead of trying again, they accepted an offer from Lloyd’s horrible mother to live in comfort in Connecticut, and now here they are, airing grievances on Christmas Eve. Since the film takes a lot of cues from Dickens, it is fitting that The Ref has its own Scrooge, Lloyd’s mom Rose. She is the source of wealth, and is an obviously heartless capitalist. Aside from the climactic scene between Lloyd and Caroline, the most important thing to happen at the end of the film is the entire family rejecting Rose’s position as family matriarch.
After all this goes down, the movie swerves into an implausible, schmaltzy ending. That’s fine. It’s not like the audience is going to feel good if Gus goes to jail, after all. I’m not sure why Lloyd would claim that he cares about Gus at this point – he’s spent most of the movie at tied up with his son’s life threatened. I suppose we’re to understand that Gus was responsible for Lloyd and Caroline’s presumed reconciliation, and Lloyd is thankful for that. Whatever, like a Dickens novel things turn out okay in the end. The problem was recognized, and therefore the characters are allowed to be happy at long last. I mean, it’s a Christmas movie. Don’t overthink it, jeez.
Okay, here are my favorite lines:
“You know what, lady? I’d like to tie you to the back of a fucking truck.” “You don’t have the balls.” “I fucking hate her, Lloyd!” “I know, I know.” – Gus, Rose, Lloyd
“You know, you and my wife have a lot in common. You both think you have some right to life working out the way you want it to, and when it doesn’t, you get to act the way you want. The only trouble with that is someone has to be responsible. I’d love to run around and take classes and play with my inner-self! I’d love the freedom to be some pissed-off criminal with no responsibilities, except I don’t have the time! But you don’t see me with a gun. And you don’t see me sleeping with someone else. You think my life turned out the way I wanted because I live in this house? You think every morning I wake up, look in the mirror and say ‘gee I’m glad I’m me, and not some 19-year-old billionaire rockstar with the body of an athlete and a 24-hour erection!’ No I don’t! So just excuse the shit out of me!” – Lloyd
“Who would catch a criminal and let them go free?” “Republicans?” – Connie and Mary
“Yeah? Well, maybe Santa won’t come back next year. Maybe he and the Easter Bunny will take a fuckin’ cruise to Jamaica and you can cook your own lousy cookies! Ah, who the hell knows?” – George
And of course, the best part of the whole movie:
“Is it possible for you to shut the fuck up for ten seconds?”
“Lloyd, don’t talk to me like that in my own house.”
“You know what, mom? You know what I’m gonna get you next Christmas? A big wooden cross. So every time you feel unappreciated for all your sacrifices, you can climb on up and nail yourself to it.”
Truly, the sickest of burns. Merry Christmas.