Netflix Picks: The Ref

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The 1990s was a weird decade. The president was an enthusiastic saxophone player. Divorce and crime were world-changing epidemics, despite both being on the decline. The Computers were just starting to become something for everyone. And it was acceptable to release a home invasion comedy that took place at Christmas partway through March (never you mind reviewing it in August). Yes, Ted Demme's 1994 film The Ref is vulgar, sarcastic and loud. But the acting is superb and, after all is said and done, it has a happy ending that feels more real than it has any right to.

Meet Lloyd and Caroline Chasseur (Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis). They're a rich couple in a small Connecticut town. And they hate each other. Caroline recently moved from half-finishing art classes to infidelity, and she wants a divorce. Lloyd nitpicks and undermines everything she says – he's both critical and emotionally unavailable. And their marriage counselor, Dr. Wong (B. D. Wong), can't keep them under control long enough to do them any good. 

Enter Gus (Denis Leary), a burglar on the run after a heist gone wrong. He takes the couple hostage while his partner, Murray (Richard Bright), secures a boat. Gus hates how Lloyd and Caroline live and behave – they can't even stop fighting at the end of a gun – but the state police are hunting him, so he's stuck until Murray secures a ride. But it's Christmas Eve, and Lloyd's family is coming for dinner from Boston.

Lloyd's family is a piece of work. His brother, Gary (Adam LeFevre) is a marshmallow in appearance and attitude, and his wife, Connie (Christine Baranski), treats their kids and everyone else terribly. But the star of the show is Rose (Glynis Johns), Lloyd's mother. Every sentence out of her mouth insults and undermines someone in her presence, but she's the one with the money, so her kids kowtow to her.

This movie runs on actor chemistry and comedic timing. Spacey, as anyone who has seen The Usual Suspects or Se7en can tell you, was a noteworthy character actor, even before gigs like House of Cards finally lionized him. His character arc is grounded at both ends, and he sells his increasing willingness to be vulnerable the whole way through. Davis plays up Caroline's swings from callous to wounded, giving the character a genuine dynamic. But when they finally open up, they become relatable, especially next to their awful relatives.

Speaking of, Johns' character is made to be hated – she's the bogeyman mother-in-law everyone fears when a relationship gets serious. For fans of Arrested Development, she's like Jessica Walter's character without the warmth, and Johns kills it.

Of course, it's the '90s, so the humor is lurid and weird in places. We go from synchronized swearing to grotesque spoken imagery to cartoon-grade slapstick all in the first ten minutes. A rottweiler chews a billiards ball into cracker crumbs, for crying out loud — the kind of tonal whiplash that kills modern movies.

I think part of this movie's appeal, though, is that it combines Home Alone levels of preposterous with adult humor and situations. If I'm honest, it's Home Alone for adults, subbing the burglars for relatives. The payoff is an airing of grievances and a resolution to do better. In the end, Lloyd and Caroline haven't fixed anything, but they're in a place they can work from. It's a plausible ending from characters who feel real and genuine.

Congratulations, you're one movie closer to justifying that $8.99 a month.

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