The Ref

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The Ref
Theatrical release poster
Directed byTed Demme
Written by
Produced by
CinematographyAdam Kimmel
Edited byJeffrey Wolf
Music byDavid A. Stewart
Distributed byBuena Vista Pictures Distribution
Release date
  • March 11, 1994 (1994-03-11)
Running time
97 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$11 million[1]

The Ref (Hostile Hostages in some countries) is a 1994 American crime comedy film directed by Ted Demme, starring Denis Leary, Judy Davis, Kevin Spacey and Glynis Johns.


On Christmas Eve in an affluent Connecticut hamlet, Lloyd and Caroline Chasseur are in a marriage counseling session with therapist Dr. Wong. Caroline has had an affair, and Lloyd is miserable and blames the behavioral problems of their 15-year-old son Jesse on his wife's coddling of him. Caroline, meanwhile, calls out Lloyd for his inability to stand up to his domineering mother, Rose.

In the same town, cat burglar Gus is in the midst of stealing jewelry from a mansion. His plan goes awry when he accidentally sets off the alarm and is chased out by a guard dog. His getaway car, driven by his partner Murray, is no longer there. At a convenience store, he runs into Lloyd and Caroline and takes them hostage, ordering them to drive him to their house. Along the way, Caroline and Lloyd keep arguing, with Gus having to repeatedly intercede and tell them to shut up.

At the Chasseur house, Gus has Lloyd and Caroline tied up while they continue to bicker. Knowing that Murray usually seeks refuge at seedy bars, Gus calls the local bar and manages to get in touch with him. He instructs Murray to steal a boat for their getaway. The police set up roadblocks and impose a curfew to look for Gus, while two officers go door-to-door. Lt. Huff, the police chief, is less than concerned because the town rarely sees criminal activity like this.

Jesse, who has been away at a military school, arrives home earlier than his parents expect. Unbeknownst to them, Jesse has been blackmailing the school's commanding officer, Siskel, with photographs of an affair. He is stashing the money with plans of running away. Gus has Jesse tied up along with his parents. Jesse, unhappy with his home life, pleads to join Gus into a life of crime. Gus calls Jesse out on his naivety and tells the boy he should appreciate his comfortable upbringing.

As the police search for Gus expands, he is forced to continue hiding out in the Chasseur home while waiting on Murray. Complicating matters are visiting neighbors, such as George, who is dressed up as Santa Claus and arrives to deliver a fruitcake for the family. Later, Lloyd's family—his brother Gary, sister-in-law Connie, their two children Mary and John, and Rose—arrive to celebrate Christmas Eve. Rose is extremely wealthy and bullies everyone in the family. To hide any suspicion that Lloyd and Caroline are being held hostage, Gus pretends to be Dr. Wong and tells Lloyd's family his presence is needed as part of "experimental therapy". Jesse is tied up and gagged upstairs in his parents' closet. During the family dinner, Caroline and Lloyd are unable to stop fighting, which comes to a head when Rose reveals that Lloyd told her about Caroline's affair, and Caroline demands a divorce. Gus' pointed comments goad Lloyd to finally stand up to his wife and his mother. Everyone finds out who Gus really is after Rose attempts to go upstairs; he puts a gun to her head.

Siskel turns up at the door and reveals how he is being blackmailed. Jesse manages to untie himself, and his parents discover his hidden money. George, still dressed as Santa, but now very drunk, returns to the home, protesting why he never gets a gift in return. He spots the gun and realizes who Gus is but gets knocked out. The state police arrive, and Lloyd, having a change of heart, decides he cannot "spend [his] life sending everyone [he] care[s] about to prison." He instructs Jesse to take Gus to the docks using a path through the woods. Gus, in George's Santa suit, makes it safely to a boat where Murray awaits.

Back at home, the couple's bickering drives away the police. Having aired out their differences throughout the evening with Gus' assistance, they make up and decide to stay together. Their reconciliation is interrupted when John informs them that "grandma Rose is eating through her gag."



Richard LaGravenese co-wrote the film with his sister-in-law Marie Weiss.[4] It was inspired by their families. For example, the dinner scene: "Both Marie and I are Italian Catholics who married into Jewish families, so we do have those big holiday dinners," LaGravenese said.[5] Weiss began writing the script in 1989 after she and her husband moved from New York to California. Inspiration came from an argument she had with him and she thought, "Wouldn't it be great if there were a third party to step in and referee?"[5] She wrote several drafts and consulted with LaGravenese in 1991 and they took it to Disney. The studio approved the project within 20 minutes. LaGravenese spent a year revising the script until he finally got "tired of doing rewrites for executives."[5]

After Ted Demme directed comedian Denis Leary in No Cure for Cancer, a stand-up comedy special for Showtime, they got the script for The Ref and decided to do it.[4][6] The studio cast Leary based on the sarcastic funny-man persona he cultivated in MTV spots that Demme directed.[7][8] Leary joined the project as part of a three-picture deal with Disney.[8] Their involvement motivated LaGravenese to come back to the project.[5] Executive producer Don Simpson described the overall tone of The Ref as "biting and sarcastic. Just my nature."[9]

After test audiences responded poorly to the film's original ending—Gus turns himself in to show Jesse that a life of crime leads nowhere quickly—a new ending was shot in January 1994.[5]


Box office[edit]

The film opened on March 11, 1994[10] and grossed a total of only $11,439,193 at the domestic box office, after coming in at #4 opening weekend, behind Guarding Tess, Lightning Jack and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.[11][1]

The Ref did not perform as well at the box office as Leary would have liked, and he blamed the studio's method of marketing it: "They did me like the MTV guy. And they shortchanged what the movie was all about."[12][13][14] Leary made fun of himself in a humorous article written for a 1995 issue of Playboy where he pretends to interview Pope John Paul II: Leary asks the Pope if he has seen The Ref, and the Pope responds that he was told it was very vulgar, as evident by its unpopularity.[15]

Critical reception[edit]

On Rotten Tomatoes the film has an approval rating of 74% based on reviews from 57 critics, with an average rating of 6.5/10. The site's consensus is: "Undeniably uneven and too dark for some, The Ref nonetheless boasts strong turns from Denis Leary, Judy Davis, and Kevin Spacey, as well as a sharply funny script."[16]

Roger Ebert gave it three out of four. He wrote, "Material like this is only as good as the acting and writing. The Ref is skillful in both areas."[17] Rolling Stone magazine's Peter Travers praised the performances of Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis: "They are combustibly funny, finding nuance even in nonsense. The script is crass; the actors never."[18] In her review for The New York Times, Caryn James praised Leary's performance: "For the first time he displays his appeal and potential as an actor instead of a comic with a sneering persona."[19] Glenn Kenny of Entertainment Weekly gave it a grade A−.[20]

Entertainment Weekly gave the film a "C−" rating, and Owen Gleiberman wrote, "The Ref is crushingly blunt-witted and monotonous in its celebration of domestic sadism."[21] In his review for The Washington Post, Hal Hinson criticised Leary's performance: "A stand-up comic trying to translate his impatient, hipster editorialising to the big screen, he doesn't have the modulation of a trained actor, only one speed (fast) and one mode of attack (loud)."[22]

The film was among 500 nominated for AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs list.[23]

Year-end lists[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b The Ref at Box Office Mojo
  2. ^ Turan, Kenneth (March 9, 1994). "MOVIE REVIEWS : 'The Ref ': Razor-Sharp : Anchored by expert performances and a biting script and direction, the Touchstone release carries a mean verbal stiletto". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved December 28, 2019.
  3. ^ "The Ref". TV Guide. Retrieved December 28, 2019.
  4. ^ a b Rea, Stephen (March 14, 1994). "Denis Leary Gunning for the Top". The Philadelphia Inquirer. pp. E05.
  5. ^ a b c d e Hornaday, Ann (March 27, 1994). "Still Speaking After Writing The Ref". The New York Times. p. 19. Archived from the original on March 13, 2015.
  6. ^ Walker, Michael (March 6, 1994). "Putting That MTV Guy to Death". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on August 3, 2023. Retrieved August 3, 2023.
  7. ^ Green, Tom (March 14, 1994). "Denis Leary Changes his Act". USA Today. pp. 1D.
  8. ^ a b Meyers, Kate (March 25, 1994). "Denis Leary takes it to Hollywood". Entertainment Weekly.
  9. ^ Weinraub, Bernard (March 14, 1994). "Simpson and Bruckheimer, Part 2". The New York Times. p. 11. Archived from the original on November 5, 2012.
  10. ^ Frook, John Evan (March 3, 1994). "'Ref' scores, Leary soars". Variety. Retrieved August 3, 2023.
  11. ^ Fox, David J. (March 15, 1994). "Weekend Box Office : 'Tess' Tops 'Jack,' 'Ace' and 'Angie'". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved August 3, 2023.
  12. ^ Thompson, Bob (March 29, 1994). "King Leary". Toronto Sun. p. 55.
  13. ^ "Unsung Anniversaries #5: The Ref". March 9, 2014. Retrieved August 3, 2023.
  14. ^ Taylor, Larry (2019). "Tension Under the Sea". Tony Scott: A Filmmaker on Fire. McFarland. p. 91. ISBN 978-1476675664. Retrieved August 3, 2023.
  15. ^ Leary, Denis. "An Interview With Pope John Paul II". Playboy. No. June 1995.
  16. ^ The Ref at Rotten Tomatoes
  17. ^ Ebert, Roger (March 11, 1994). "The Ref". Chicago Sun-Times. Sun-Times Media Group. Archived from the original on October 4, 1999.
  18. ^ Travers, Peter (March 9, 1994). "The Ref". Rolling Stone. Retrieved May 4, 2020.
  19. ^ James, Caryn (March 9, 1994). "Reviews/Film: The Ref; A Christmas That Upends Christmas". The New York Times. New York City. Archived from the original on May 26, 2015.
  20. ^ Glenn Kenny (August 5, 1994). "The Ref". Entertainment Weekly.
  21. ^ Gleiberman, Owen (March 18, 1994). "The Ref". Entertainment Weekly. New York City: Meredith Corporation.
  22. ^ Hinson, Hal (March 12, 1994). "The Ref". The Washington Post. Washington DC: Nash Holdings LLC.
  23. ^ "List of 500 Movies Nominated for the Top 100 Funniest American Movies" (PDF). American Film Institute. September 26, 2006. Archived from the original (PDF) on August 11, 2019. Retrieved December 28, 2019.
  24. ^ Pickle, Betsy (December 30, 1994). "Searching for the Top 10... Whenever They May Be". Knoxville News-Sentinel. p. 3.
  25. ^ King, Dennis (December 25, 1994). "SCREEN SAVERS In a Year of Faulty Epics, The Oddest Little Movies Made The Biggest Impact". Tulsa World (Final Home ed.). p. E1.
  26. ^ P. Means, Sean (January 1, 1995). "'Pulp and Circumstance' After the Rise of Quentin Tarantino, Hollywood Would Never Be the Same". The Salt Lake Tribune (Final ed.). p. E1.
  27. ^ Arnold, William (December 30, 1994). "'94 Movies: Best and Worst". Seattle Post-Intelligencer (Final ed.). p. 20.
  28. ^ Craft, Dan (December 30, 1994). "Success, Failure and a Lot of In-between; Movies '94". The Pantagraph. p. B1.

External links[edit]