The Ref, a rowdy comedy about a bickering couple whose marriage is saved when a house burglar takes them hostage on Christmas Eve and ends up playing marriage counselor to them, wasn’t a big hit I can only imagine because it isn’t as crass as the advertising promised. With a mix of scatological, obscene, and mother-in-law jokes, it’s certainly broad enough to entertain a big audience. But it’s got a high end, too, and deserves a better fate on video because the script (by brother- and sister-in-law Richard LaGravenese and Marie Weiss, from Weiss’s story) and the direction (by Ted Demme) leave ample space for the central relationship to develop into one of the classic Hollywood divorce-comedy pairings.
Lloyd Chasseur (Kevin Spacey), a taciturn mama’s boy, runs his mother’s pricey antique shop in a yuppie and old-money Connecticut village, which is as thoroughly decorated at Christmas as a mall. His wife Caroline (Judy Davis) dabbles in classes (most recently in Scandinavian cooking), taking things up and then losing interest without having burnt off a significant amount of her pent-up frustration. From their opening scenes in a marriage counselor’s office, Davis and Spacey work together with the timing that only a bad marriage could produce. They don’t simply interrupt each other, they leap into each other’s pauses to expose the self-protective hedging in what the other has been saying. They spend all their time stripping each other while rationalizing their own behavior, except when Lloyd would rather not talk at all. Lloyd, pampered without being fey, or even soft, seems emotionally deadened by demands he can’t fulfill, and he keeps disappointment at bay with a saturnine stoicism, his deep, square dimples the sign of how he has clamped his feelings in. You see exactly why he’d drive someone as hyper as Caroline crazy. When Lloyd insists to their marriage counselor Dr. Wong that he’s happy, Caroline howls, "How can we both be in the marriage and I’m miserable and you’re content?!" to which Lloyd obdurately offers a single word, "Luck?" Spacey and Davis are like the temperamental stars of a comic opera version of a Punch and Judy show. They play this strident high comedy duet with a self-sustaining brio that easily puts them on the level of the stars of Twentieth Century, The Awful Truth, The Philadelphia Story, and His Girl Friday.
The central technical trick of romantic comedy plotting is the obstacle. We have to feel that the couple is meant to be together and still believe in whatever keeps them apart until the denouement. In straightforward romantic comedies (those that proceed from meeting to pairing), the obstacle can be a misunderstanding (often, irritatingly, one a child could sort out), a misperception, immaturity, an act of deception and its exposure, or just bad luck or timing.
A divorce comedy is like a second honeymoon version of romantic comedy, in which the couple has to find each other all over again, now that they know what "for better or worse" really means. 1 (It draws on our skepticism about comedy that after the happy ending all tensions will remain resolved. 2 ) In this sense, the couple’s married relationship itself becomes the romantic comedy obstacle, and so divorce comedies often seem less trivial because the characters know each other and have been driven apart by the things that do drive couples apart. That is, the obstacle can derive directly from the experience of marriage familiar to most of us.
In divorce comedy the obstacle can follow from a particular couple’s divergent activities (he works too much, she wants more attention and affection), from their fundamental personality differences, from the different vulnerabilities or desires of men and women more generally, or from the couple’s knowing each other so well that what was attractive has become repellent. This last is the case in The Ref, which is, technically, a heading-for-divorce comedy, which means the obstacle is a fact the characters are already deep into when the movie starts. And it’s even more substantial in that what’s driven Lloyd and Caroline apart has been the process of getting to know each other.
Early in their marriage Lloyd and Caroline started a restaurant in New York that failed. Circumstances fell short of their romantic ideal and they turned against each other when they saw how the other reacted. Hearing about their missteps with the restaurant and watching them interact now we can see how their good qualities shade into bad ones. Caroline’s openness has become floundering, and, in compensating for her indecisiveness, Lloyd’s solidity has become rigidity, with cynicism and derision his manner of paying himself back for the emotional cost. Necessary adaptations can make a couple grow together or apart--Lloyd and Caroline, for whom misery has offered the path of least resistance, have done both simultaneously. They’re deeply wedded in their unhappiness.
Twentieth Century and His Girl Friday likewise both suggest that what bonds the couple also drives them apart. At the end of those movies you know that despite the resolution of the plot these couples will whirl off into the future with the men maddening the women and the women threatening to leave but also drawn back to the only men who make them feel fully alive. (Did Private Lives establish the model for this century?) It’s essential to the sophistication of these pictures that they accept us as the entertainingly paradoxical animals we are: predictably perverse.
As Lloyd and Caroline, Spacey and Davis display the high style of classic screwball comedies, and then some. Spacey has a compact, almost compressed physicality that his frightening precision with lines grows right out of. For a star actor whose playful sense of threat borders on sadism, Spacey doesn’t move very fast. He’s no darter and jabber--the speed is all in his brain. He doesn’t have to move fast, because by time a character says something to him Spacey (or the Spacey that his early fans love) is already there, already sarcastic about the inadequacy of the statement and the thoughts and feelings behind it. And the seafood eyes, whose blankness tells his adversaries they don’t merit any expression because they’ve lived down to the least of his expectations, hold them in place while he takes them apart with his tongue. He has so much style as a performer his contempt is unanswerable; it’s comic with an authoritarian whack.
Though Lloyd is a less flamboyant role than he played in the terrific Swimming with Sharks, Spacey’s range here suggests the dramatic and comic skills John Barrymore had to split between Counsellor at Law and Twentieth Century. Spacey never reserves himself outside the movie as Barrymore did regularly (and Bill Murray has done as well), in Barrymore’s case a drunk’s way of letting the audience know that the projects weren’t worthy of the talent he was pissing away on them. (Nor does he act in his own higher-style movie-within-the-movie, as Nicolas Cage did in The Rock and as Owen Wilson is now making a specialty of doing.) Yet Spacey lasers right through the artifice separating actor-character and audience by means of a subversive authority that is even larger than Barrymore’s precisely because he keeps it within the reality of the movie’s world.
This basic seriousness means he can’t overcome the deadening effect of a pedestrian movie like A Time to Kill or Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil or The Negotiator. But when a movie knows what it has in Spacey’s wicked, high-impact comic skill, there’s a fusion of the actor’s and character’s power that is beyond the power of most movie stars. Spacey has the technical craft of a stage-trained actor that allows him to seemingly shape the space he inhabits, but greater immediacy, and not just because the camera puts us closer to him than we would be in the theater. He’s subtle at full force. Even Barrymore couldn’t equal Spacey in suggesting the extent of Lloyd’s rage while getting his knife-thrower’s laughs.
So far Spacey hasn’t shown Barrymore’s romantic range, which came from lending a portion of his full faith and credit as an actor to that face, that form, which otherwise wouldn’t have distinguished him from an ordinary "looks" star like John Gilbert. Spacey may finally be too rebarbative in conflict to be a romantic hero. And Spacey can get downright smudgy when his character "matures" into the normal range of human feelings, in a movie like American Beauty which thereby implicitly suggest that the high style that makes him so exciting an actor is an emotional maladaptation of the character’s. (L.A. Confidential contained the damage by killing him off.) The Ref is so good for Spacey because as the family crossfire drives Lloyd out of his defensive pillbox, he talks more, stakes out larger areas of territory for his control, and control is Spacey’s specialty.
Playing off him, Davis’s comic exasperation is unusually redolent: she matches Spacey’s slowest-ever burn with eyeball-rolling that comes from the soul. She’s the bored housewife-mother who has reduced herself to howling all her demands, giving herself to every trivial point of contention as if it were the final, decisive one. And Davis is such an adept comedienne she can show us how defeated Caroline feels by her own tantrums--she rains on her own fireworks displays. But Davis also registers the hopefulness in Caroline’s dilettantism. When Lloyd’s family sneers and groans at her Swedish Christmas specialties (it’s a dinner with footnotes), sitting like lumps underneath the lighted candle coronets she’s had them don, Davis wears hers like the very spirit of festivity. Still, when her mother-in-law gives the conversation a nasty turn, Davis, with that voice in which you can hear the grating of nutmeg, always has her archly jaded comic style to fall back on, for instance in her suspended delivery of the word "fascinating," or in the way she responds to the mother’s bitchy hesitation about the dessert by rapping out, "Then don’t eat it," and dropping the plate from four feet above the coffee table. (Irony hums in Davis’s timing and delivery--when she speaks certain lines, sometimes a single word, you feel like applauding.) It’s hard to imagine anyone else being married to either of these two. Only Lloyd’s gravity could hold Caroline in orbit. They’re an extraordinary couple, and not simply within the terms of this kind of comedy.
Wife and Husband
Though The Ref starts with the couple apparently wasting their time in counseling, the movie isn’t a potshot at therapeutics. The therapeutic resolution mirrors the resolution of the comic plot, which we believe in because of the psychological detailing of the characterizations. Lloyd and Caroline’s personalities reflect contemporary confusion about family roles: the woman’s search for a way to give meaning to her days beyond the duties of wife and mother, and the husband’s ambivalence about being a pillar when he’s as likely to be blamed as thanked for it. But they never seem like mere types. We’ve seen Caroline cracking in pain over the split up, but she’s the ineffectual one. Lloyd is the one who takes care of problems, but he can’t bear to talk or even think about what’s gone wrong. The only life preserver he can toss Caroline is his insistence that there will be no divorce. Lloyd’s authority becomes increasingly credible as he moves from his initial taciturnity to his outburst to the burglar about responsibility and then finally to a speech to Caroline recounting how the decisions that she now laments and feels trapped by were made. Lloyd becomes the foundation of the counter-process of reconciliation, and of the movie.
The script lays out their perfect mismatch and then lets the slapstick farce concept of the burglar’s intrusion provide a way to a breakthrough. What’s useful to Lloyd and Caroline about the burglar Gus (Denis Leary) is that his street-Irish toughness and his criminal’s sense of efficiency cut through their defenses. Having tied them up in chairs, sprayed them with the kitchen hose, and pushed them over backwards onto the floor, he still has to use his gun to make them admit to petty lies they’ve been bickering about, just to get them to shut up so he can try to control the situation. Gus is the tough-love Puck that Lloyd and Caroline need.
Gus is important in that he vents the audience’s potentially dangerous repulsion from Lloyd and Caroline in a comic mode. (Stand-up hostility in terms of his lines and slapstick frustration otherwise.) It allows Leary to introduce a ruder, low-comedy bass line into the movie, keyed to his fast burn specialty (the opposite of Spacey’s). Gus is always already ignited, and the jokes come from Leary’s variations on over-the-top anger. He offers verbal slaps in the face (for instance, when Caroline responds at length to his saying that she probably never worked a day in her life, by relating the history of the restaurant, he snaps, "What are we--girlfriends here?"). Or else his responses are strangled beyond speech, a kind of muttering that engages the teeth and lips alone. Leary’s role is essentially to play a Three Stooges bully, appalled by the dishonesty and self-absorption of his hostages. With the delivery of a dyspeptic woodpecker, for whom beating his brains out against tree trunks has ruined the pleasure of being the kind of bird he is, but little slowed down, Leary does his shtick crisply and gets all his laughs. (Still, you wouldn’t necessarily guess that he would deepen as an actor since The Ref. His performance in the tricky 1998 crime picture Suicide Kings was impressively textured with strands of loyalty and practicality unusual in the role of a hotheaded bodyguard.)
The Family Shows Up
Gus takes control but then the situation changes radically when Lloyd’s mother (Glynis Johns) arrives with her other son Gary (Adam LeFevre), Gary’s toxic top of a wife Connie (Christine Baranski), and the couple’s two children. Gus tries to handle it nonviolently by passing himself off as Dr. Wong, and the joke is that Gus is a much more effective counselor than Dr. Wong precisely because he doesn’t stick to the model of objectivity. He’s made them admit their flaws, and now he takes sides, telling Lloyd how heinous his mother is just to preserve his own sanity during a break from dinner. Unfortunately for Gus, the therapy works so well that he can’t keep a lid on the dinner party; Caroline is so shaken by Mother Rose’s abuse that she uses Gus’s presence as an excuse to let it all hang out. (Her candle wreath starts to slant and the candles to go out.)
Mother Rose is almost a match for Gus. This well-kept old woman has a fierce stare that hints she anticipates the pleasure of exposing anyone she perceives as a threat to her brood (daughters-in-law included on always retractable sufferance), and she backs Gus halfway up the stairs on first meeting. (He can’t dominate Mother as long as he has to hide his gun.) We learn that Mother "rescued" Lloyd and Caroline from their failed restaurant and reduced lifestyle in New York, renting them her big house and loaning them the capital to start the antique store in her name which Lloyd runs. She holds her money over the heads of both her sons’ families and gets a special gleam in her eyes when Lloyd hands her an installment on the loan as her Christmas present. The real present may be the chance to respond, "Of course, we’ll have to see what happens with interest rates in the new year." And she gives as little back as possible: Connie receives from her a pair of slipper-socks, at which she can’t resist turning her head to mutter in disgust. (It’s a stroke that enables you to identify with Connie despite her poisonous fakery. Her hatred of Mother Rose saves her from a too-schematically set up comeuppance.)
But Johns’s eyes positively sparkle when Lloyd announces Caroline is leaving him--she’s an Oedipal Gorgon, a bourgeois update of all the devouring mother monster myths. Johns gives just the right kind of deliberate readings for the part as conceived; every phrase comes out incontrovertible. Unfortunately her big speech is poorly written, but she projects with her eyes as much as her voice, and we can whiff the sulfur even when she’s simply huffing in anger, like a dragon building up a holocaust of fire in her chest. When Gus ties her up, you believe her claim to have survived worse. She’s the kind of mother of whom her children say, "She’ll live to bury us all." Johns as Mother Rose looks as if she’d stay alive for that pleasure alone.
The moviemakers know that coarser material and rougher push can make high romantic comedy funny in a lower zone and deepen it at the same time. For instance, we’re way past sit-com euphemism here. Not only do the husband and wife’s personalities feel less generic than in almost any popular American romantic comedy, there’s a freedom in the language and the references to sex and even sexual practices that gives the characters more range. Here the "awful truth," i.e., the wife’s adultery, is true and thus even more awful. In addition, forced at gunpoint to tell the truth or shut up and to cooperate with each other, and pushed to such a point that Lloyd finally articulates his feelings about the marriage and his mother (that is, he finally participates in the therapy), Lloyd and Caroline reconnect, and it makes crazy sense: we can learn about ourselves after earthquake-force shake-ups to our lives. (Sometimes it seems we can learn only from such shake-ups.) The movie is jokey as hell but has the naked power of a vivisection. Having separated after nine years from the person I originally saw and loved the movie with, I now see more than the wit of the conceit, the skill of the display. On second viewing I responded to the need behind Caroline’s wailing and flailing to pierce through to causes and map out resolutions, and to Lloyd’s determination to stay together, the grim testament to his love. I’ve earned my degree and can certify that these folks know what they’re joking about.
A lot of intelligent people might object that The Ref makes therapy improbably effective. For example, the disastrous family holiday cures both Lloyd and his brother of their paralysis, that is, they learn to stand up to their mother as well as their wives, thereby suggesting that honesty will help resolve primal family dysfunction. If only! Therapy seems more likely to help couples than families because you choose your partner. Up to a point you can use the threat of divorce to engage your partner in critical dialogue in a way you can’t credibly threaten your parents. It’s more convincing when the movie shows that recourse to the bad family dynamics is the only surefire way to keep Mother Rose from going upstairs. It also comes near to sentimentalizing Gus when he dispenses good advice to Lloyd and Caroline’s messed-up son. (And then his fate as a fugitive was softened on the basis of test audience’s responses to the original ending. 3 )
Blowing Your Top
But the movie keeps the "honest" burglar in perspective by giving Lloyd that speech about responsibility--his shot at answering Gus’s taunt that they’ve had it too easy--which works because Lloyd seems truly angry about the way things have turned out and because his self-pity is so thoroughly self-righteous (and not without reason) that what’s true in the speech doesn’t come off as pat. And if you accept the idealized view of therapy, the moviemakers know how to use it to blow the top off the impacted marriage as well as the pressurized farce plot. Even the uptight Connie responds to the what-the-hell freedom and Baranski gets in two great lines against Mother Rose. The mix of post-’70s frankness and screwball style make this a four-finger cocktail of a high comedy. The addition of slapstick and Leary’s one-liners should just combine audiences for the movie, as if they’d made a popsicle out of that cocktail.
Anyway, a never fully developed strand involving the local constabulary is a greater problem with the movie than a naïve faith in counseling. And I don’t mind the therapy here, not only because the process accelerates the comedy at the end, but because the movie’s belief in therapy is so emotional. Plus, this belief in truth-telling in a family setting shades into its spirited defilement of family and what Christmas is supposed to represent and all kinds of homey expectations that our lives almost never live up to. The wealthy community of Old Baybrook includes a tippler who makes the rounds on Christmas Eve delivering his wife’s inedible fruitcakes and cadging drinks. His holiday cheer plunges rapidly until he has to be forcibly ejected from a house for being mean to the children, at which he walks to the front gate and recycles the booze into the snow. He then makes it over to Lloyd and Caroline’s where Gus is forced to drop him in his Santa suit with a single punch. The movie proceeds from the awareness that we need therapy because the conventional forms of family life don’t do for us what the clichés suggest they should. But there’s a more unregenerate desire driving the movie as well. LaGravenese has said that he found the dinner scene "particularly exhilarating" to write because of the "fun" of "breaking down the veneer and finally having everybody say what they wanted to say." 4 If you add that they say it at the most inappropriate time, you get a sense of the explosive power of this romantic comedy. Watching it on Christmas should be enough to clear anyone’s carburetor of Miracle on 34th Street build-up.
- divorce comedy: Stanley Cavell’s Pursuits of Happiness is an absorbing book on the what he calls the "comedy of remarriage." It’s also a maddening book, lumpily stuffed with the professor’s erudition in the field of philosophy. (return to text)
- after the happy ending: Frye 170-71. (return to text)
- Gus’s fate: Hornaday. (return to text)
- particularly exhilarating: Hornaday. (return to text)