Glynis Johns

The Ref (1994, Ted Demme)

Every once in a while, The Ref lets you forget it’s just a comedy vehicle for stand-up comic Denis Leary and so doesn’t need to actually be a good drama and just lets you enjoy the acting. Demme’s direction is simultaneously detached, thoughtful, and sincere. He and editor Jeffrey Wolf craft these wonderful comedic scenes. Sure, they’re usually some mixture of smart and crass and good old shock vulgar, but they’re good. They’re funny. The Ref starts as a straight-faced spoof of a hostage drama. Lovable master thief Denis Leary takes viciously fighting and profoundly unhappily married Judy Davis and Kevin Spacey hostage. On Christmas Eve. Eventually their extended family shows up and the film culminates in Leary, who’s spent the movie refereeing the fighting couple—refereeing, The Ref, a little punny but, you know, fine. Makes you think about sports not the movie actually being a Bergman spoof.

It’s not. I wish it were, but it’s not. It’s a mainstream comedy with just the right amount of jokes at people and with people, once you get over the nastiness between Spacey and Davis. The opening scene is them in marriage counseling—an uncredited BD Wong plays the overwhelmed counselor who’s just there for the eventual movie trailer… and to normalize their behavior. Their exceptionally mean comments to each other. Hateful, spiteful, so on and so forth. The film’s giving us permission to laugh at Spacey and Davis trying to manipulate and hurt one another. It comes right after an Americana intro to the rich, idyllic suburb where the action takes place. We meet the friendly, personable cops, the children looking in the window at Christmas decorations, on and on. There are a lot of disparate pieces to The Ref, like Raymond J. Barry as the weary police chief with the department of lovably dumb cops, the It’s a Wonderful Life anecdote scene with a bunch of those lovably dumb cops, or J.K. Simmons as a blackmailed military school administrator. The movie makes them all fit. Sometimes with help from composer David A. Stewart, but always thanks to Demme and editor Wolf. The Ref’s got a great flow.

So then too is credit due screenwriters Richard LaGravenese and Marie Weiss; Weiss has a story credit but LaGravenese is top-billed so there’s a story, I’m sure. Maybe it explains why the melodramatic writing for Spacey and Davis—because Spacey and Davis need meat, they need something they can devour. They both get various solo scenes throughout where they get to let loose. Showcases, really. Because in addition to having a lot of funny scenes, The Ref is about watching Davis and Spacey do these character examinations of what would otherwise just be caricatures. They’ve got to be funny being dramatically mean and hateful to each other, while building the foundation to support the performances when the roles finally get stripped to the bone and laid bare for melodramatic purposes. While in what’s basically a sitcom situation involving Leary pretending to be their marriage counselor while he waits for his getaway boat to be ready. See, Spacey’s got an evil mom (Glynis Johns, who’s inexplicably British) and remember it’s Christmas Eve so it’s going to be Johns, apparently Spacey’s moron brother Adam LeFevre—nothing’s more unrealistic in the film than LeFevre and Spacey being brothers; they don’t exchange any lines; it’s like the film wanted to avoid it. LeFevre’s monosyllabic and lives in fear of wife Christine Baranski, who’s nasty to their kids—Phillip Nicoll and Ellie Raab but in a stuck-up White lady sort of way. Yeah… sitcom is the way to describe The Ref, actually.

Anyway.

Then there’s Spacey and Davis’s son, Robert J. Steinmiller Jr., who’s fine. The movie doesn’t ask too much of him and Demme directs him well. He’s a burgeoning criminal mastermind, a sophomore shipped off to military academy. He’s a plot foil more than a major supporting player—basically the film demotes him in the second act because it’s not fun watching Spacey and Davis berate each other in front of Steinmiller, which isn’t a great situation.

The filmmakers do what they can but there’s an inherent unevenness to The Ref. It feigns being different things—wry hostage spoof, hateful family Christmas movie—without ever trying to actually be those things. It’s comfortable just relying on Davis, Spacey, and Leary to get it through.

Because Leary’s the emcee. The film hints at giving him some stand-up rants throughout but soon makes it clear it’ll never interrupts the action for them. It’s a Leary vehicle but not a base one. He’s excellent. Not clearly profoundly talented like Davis and Spacey—which, note, is much different than their performances being profound—but excellent in the part. He’s very good at making room from his more talented, second and third-billed costars.

The Ref’s good.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Ted Demme; screenplay by Richard LaGravenese and Marie Weiss, based on a story by Weiss; director of photography, Adam Kimmel; edited by Jeffrey Wolf; music by David A. Stewart; production designer, Dan Davis; costume designer, Judianna Makovsky; produced by Ron Bozman, LaGravenese, and Jeffrey Weiss; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring Denis Leary (Gus), Judy Davis (Caroline), Kevin Spacey (Lloyd), Robert J. Steinmiller Jr. (Jesse), Richard Bright (Murray), Raymond J. Barry (Huff), Glynis Johns (Rose), Christine Baranski (Connie), Adam LeFevre (Gary), Phillip Nicoll (John), Ellie Raab (Mary), Bill Raymond (George), John Scurti (Steve), Jim Turner (Phil), Robert Ridgely (Bob Burley), J.K. Simmons (Siskel), Rutanya Alda (Linda), and BD Wong (Dr. Wong).


Encore (1951, Pat Jackson, Anthony Pelissier, and Harold French)

With the exception of some overly confident rear screen projection and a problematic middle story, Encore is an almost entirely successful anthology of three W. Somerset Maugham stories. Each story has a different director and screenwriter; otherwise the crew is the same.

Maugham introduces each story, usually saying something to mildly detract from it–he emphasizes the stories being fictionalizations of real life, which seems a tad pointless, but it’s better than when he assails one of his characters. More on that one in a bit.

The first story is an extremely dry comedy, with loafing Nigel Patrick trying to get money out of his successful older brother, played by Roland Culver. Pat Jackson directs it, T.E.B. Clarke does the script for it. Both Patrick and Culver are fantastic–Patrick’s solution to Culver not lending him money is to take menial jobs in Culver’s social circle to humiliate him. So for a while the segment is just Patrick being a perfect bastard and Culver getting more and more frustrated. The jobs are always funny–and always involve Culver’s bewildered client, Charles Victor–before it takes a very fun turn at the end.

Clarke’s script is fast and funny, Jackson’s direction is the same. Jackson lets Patrick walk off with scenes (usually over Culver–but not always) to great effect.

From that very high start, Encore immediately gets in to trouble with the second segment. It starts before the segment itself, with Maugham complaining about a woman he once didn’t like. It’s appropriate, dire forecasting.

Directed by Anthony Pelissier and written by Arthur Macrae, the second segment is about annoying cruise ship passenger Kay Walsh. No one can stand her. She’s talkative and friendly, which is obnoxious to captain Noel Purcell and ship’s doctor Ronald Squire. Lots of the complaints have to do with Walsh being a woman, which seems like lazy writing on someone’s part (Macrae’s or Maugham’s), and it reduces every character in the segment to a caricature. At the end, it turns out the caricatures were intentional so there could be a last minute reveal.

Despite the characters being astoundingly thin, the performances are all generally fine. Once she gets to do, Walsh is quite good (good enough someone should’ve rethought the adaptation of the story, as it’s no good for film). Pelissier’s direction, albeit peppered with stock footage of the ocean, the Bahamas, and so on, is quite good. He’s directing for the actors, shame the script isn’t there for them.

The final segment starts with yet another troubling introduction from Maugham. It’s going to be about dangerous stunt performers, he says, who he wishes would just do something safer.

Glynis Johns (top-billed for the whole picture) is a high diver. She dives eighty feet into five feet of water, which is covered in flames. She does it twice a night for rich diners at a Riviera resort. Husband Terence Morgan is her announcer and manager. Johns is getting sick of the life, while Morgan is negotiating longer and longer, and more and more lucrative, contracts for her. When they meet retired daredevil Mary Merrall (and her husband, Martin Miller), Johns’s crises become more immediate.

Harold French directs this segment, from a script by Eric Ambler. It’s the biggest segment–though there’s still some questionable rear screen projection on the Riveria, there’s a physical eighty-foot diving platform and a lot of sets. There’s the restaurant, there’s a casino, it’s a lot more open than either of the preceding segments. It’s not about the sets or the stunts, however, it’s all about Johns and her growing fear. About Morgan and his working class dreams. Of the three, it embraces its sentimentality the most and is the most ambitious. French and Ambler don’t have a last minute reveal or some really funny situational comedy to fall back on. They just have the actors. And the actors succeed.

Excellent performances–from Patrick, Culver, Walsh, Johns, Morgan, and Merrall–excellent direction, solid production values (excepting the problematic rear screen, of course) result in an entirely satisfactory, rather successful film.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Pat Jackson, Anthony Pelissier, and Harold French; screenplay by T.E.B. Clarke, Arthur Macrae, and Eric Ambler, based on stories by W. Somerset Maugham; director of photography, Desmond Dickinson; edited by Alfred Roome; music by Richard Addinsell; produced by Antony Darnborough; released by General Film Distributors.

Starring Nigel Patrick (Tom Ramsay), Roland Culver (George Ramsay), Charles Victor (Mr. Bateman), Peter Graves (Philip Cronshaw), Kay Walsh (Miss Molly Reid), Noel Purcell (Captain), Ronald Squire (Doctor), Jacques François (Pierre), John Horsley (Joe, Mate), Glynis Johns (Stella Cotman), Terence Morgan (Syd Cotman), Mary Merrall (Flora Penezzi), and Martin Miller (Carlo Penezzi).


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