Christmas time is here, which means holiday movies are all the rage. But some of the best holiday movies aren’t uplifting tales of the triumph of the human spirit. Welcome to Dysfunctional Holiday Theater.

The first edition features one of my favorite Christmas-themed flicks, the 1994 Denis Leary comedy, “The Ref.”

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Denis Leary was a pretty popular guy in the early-to-mid-1990s. From vignettes where he ranted on MTV to his first comedy album, “No Cure For Cancer,” Leary was positioning himself as an alternative icon in the age of grunge rock. You can’t really blame the guy for trying to capitalize on his popularity with a holiday movie.

It wasn’t Leary’s first movie, or even his first cult hit – he played the stepfather with the Babe Ruth baseball in The Sandlot – but it was probably the first movie where Leary played a character similar to the guy featured during his routine: disaffected and angry at the world.

In “The Ref,” Leary plays Gus, a career criminal out for one last big score on Christmas Eve. But his plans are sent askew by a booby trapped home in Connecticut that sends him on the lam. He hijacks a car and forces a couple to take him back to their home. With a curfew enacted because of the attempted robbery and family coming for dinner, hi-jinx were definitely were definitely going to ensue.

The couple Leary kidnaps – Lloyd and Caroline Chasseur – are on the fast track to divorce and a Christmas Eve dinner with Lloyd’s family is only hastening the process. Despite initially trying to resist Gus’ attempts at escaping, the thief’s blunt anger starts to get through to the couple, and they begin to work together to survive an evening with Lloyd’s mother. One of Leary’s best lines in the movie is reacting to mother Rose, who just told Gus that he doesn’t have the balls to shoot her.

“What is the matter with you? I thought mothers were sweet and nice a-a-and patient. I know loan sharks who are more forgiving than you. Your husband ain’t dead, lady. He’s hiding.”

Lloyd Chasseur is played by Kevin Spacey, who matches Leary note-for-note. Spacey is a great actor who was already established in Hollywood, but he was still a year or two away from a breakout series of roles that cemented him in the national identity. “The Ref” was his last role before an amazing 5-6 year run that included high profile roles in The Usual Suspects, The Negotiator, L.A. Confidential and American Beauty, to name a few.

He’s billed THIRD here, after Leary and Judy Davis, who plays his wife Caroline. Twenty years later, that’s mind-boggling.

Spacey’s Lloyd is the guy who tries to keep everything together despite his own lack of fulfillment. His marriage is falling apart, his son is a bit of a sociopath and he’s paying back a loan to his mother. Gus – who pretends to be Lloyd and Caroline’s therapist at the family dinner – helps to break Lloyd out of his shell and drives him to stand up to his domineering mother.

“You know what, Mom? You know what I’m going to get you next Christmas? A big wooden cross, so that every time you feel unappreciated for your sacrifices, you can climb on up and nail yourself to it.”

Also of note, JK Simmons was cast here as Siskel, an administrator at the military academy where Lloyd and Caroline’s son Jesse is enrolled, who is being blackmailed by Jesse. It was his first feature film role. I think he did alright for himself.

I always thought “The Ref” was one of those movies that only I – and maybe a handful of others – truly appreciated, the very definition of a cult classic, I guess. So I was surprised to see that it was included on an Entertainment Weekly list of “The 50 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen,” back in 2012. It’s nice when your favorite movies are recognized by other people.

“The Ref” is available for viewing on Netflix. 

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