The Ref

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

The Ref
Theatrical release poster
Directed byTed Demme
Produced byRon Bozman
Richard LaGravenese
Jeffrey Weiss
Written byRichard LaGravenese
Marie Weiss
Music byDavid A. Stewart
CinematographyAdam Kimmel
Edited byJeffrey Wolf
Distributed byBuena Vista Pictures
Release date
  • March 11, 1994 (1994-03-11)
Running time
97 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$11 million
Box office$11,439,193[1]


In a charming Connecticut village, Lloyd and Caroline Chasseur (Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis) are in marriage counseling on Christmas Eve; the session does not go well and their problems become evident. Caroline has had an affair, and Lloyd is miserable and blames the problems with their 14-year-old son, Jesse (Robert J. Steinmiller Jr.), on his wife. (She coddles and protects him and thinks he does no wrong, whilst he continues to treat him like the criminal he turns out to really be.) The marriage counselor Dr. Wong (B.D. Wong), tries to get them to open up, but, behaving professionally, he refuses to intercede on either side.

Meanwhile, a criminal named Gus (Denis Leary) is in the midst of stealing jewelry from a safe in a home he has broken into; however, he accidentally sets off the alarm, a trap door opens and he lands in the basement. Only after he is bitten on the leg by a guard dog is Gus able to escape the house, but his getaway car, driven by his bumbling, alcoholic partner Murray (Richard Bright), is no longer there. Then he runs into Lloyd and Caroline. Holding a gun on them, Gus orders the couple to drive him to their house. Along the way Caroline and Lloyd continue to argue, with Gus beginning to act as a referee and repeatedly telling them to shut up.

At the house, Lloyd and Caroline continue to argue. Knowing full well that Murray will seek refuge at a seedy bar, Gus calls the bar and describes Murray to the bartender. He tells Murray to steal a boat for their getaway. Jesse comes home and discovers his parents tied up. Jesse is unhappy, forced to attend military school, and has been blackmailing a commanding officer there named Siskel (J.K. Simmons) with photographs of an affair, and is also in possession of a baby Jesus from their town's nativity scene for unknown reasons (which is discovered by Gus when snooping around the house after Caroline denies Jesse had anything to do with it to him). He prefers Gus to his parents, but Gus, despite claiming earlier to Lloyd that his life as a criminal is more meaningful than his is, explains to Jesse that his life isn't all as great as he thinks it might be.

Meanwhile, police set up roadblocks and set a curfew to help look for Gus, while two inept officers go door to door. Lt. Huff, the chief at the local precinct is less than concerned over it because nothing like this ever happens there. However, Huff does obtain video footage of Gus in action, but while taking a call, his bumbling officers accidentally record over the footage trying to change the channel back to the movie they were watching; It's a Wonderful Life. Due to this and his lax attitude over the whole thing, he is later informed by Bob, a councilman, that his officers are to report to him and that he is fired the day after Christmas. However, his joy is crushed when Lt. Huff informs him that he slept with his wife once while out of town, and was a better lover than he was.

Another side story is a neighbor dressed as Santa named George. He comes by to deliver a fruitcake to the Chasseurs, then goes off to a Christmas party to hand out gifts, but eventually gets belligerent with the kids and winds up so drunk he is kicked out of the party.

Lloyd's family is en route for the holidays. It includes his brother Gary (Adam LeFevre), sister-in-law Connie (Christine Baranski), their two children Mary and John (Ellie Raab and Phillip Nicoll), and Lloyd’s mother Rose (Glynis Johns), who is extremely wealthy and bullies everyone in the family. Gus pretends to be Lloyd's and Caroline's marriage counselor, Dr. Wong, since he cannot hold everyone hostage. Jesse is tied up and gagged upstairs in his parents' closet. Caroline and Lloyd are unable to stop fighting, and Caroline demands a divorce. Gus' pointed comments goad Lloyd to finally find the guts to stand up to his wife and his mother. Everyone finds out who Gus really is after Rose attempts to go upstairs; Gus puts a gun to her head and Connie, fed up with everybody, says, "Shoot her."

Siskel turns up to reveal how he is being blackmailed. Jesse has managed to untie himself and is discovered with his hidden money. Then George, still dressed as Santa, returns, very drunk, wondering why he never gets a gift in return. He spots the gun, realizes who Gus is, then runs at him, only to get knocked out. The state police arrive and Lloyd, having a change of heart decides he cannot "spend his life sending everyone he cares about to prison" and tells Jesse to take Gus to the docks using a path through the woods. Gus steals the Santa suit and makes it safely to the boat. He escapes, arguing with Murray much the same way he argued all night with Caroline and Lloyd.

Back at home, the couple's bickering even drives away the police. Having aired out their differences throughout the evening with their armed robber's assistance, they make up and decide to stay together and kiss. 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.[2] 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.[3] 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?"[3] 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."[3]

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.[2] The studio cast Leary based on the sarcastic funny man persona he cultivated in MTV spots that Demme directed.[4] Their involvement motivated LaGravenese to come back to the project.[3] Executive producer Don Simpson described the overall tone of The Ref as "biting and sarcastic. Just my nature."[5]

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.[3]


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."[6] The film 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.[1] Leary made fun of himself in a humorous article written for a 1994 issue of Playboy where he is interviewing 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.

The film received a 71% "fresh" rating on review aggregate Rotten Tomatoes based on 52 reviews with a rating average of 6.4/10, with the consensus: "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."[7]

Roger Ebert gave it three out of four stars. He wrote, "Material like this is only as good as the acting and writing. The Ref is skillful in both areas."[8] 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."[9] 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."[10] However, 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."[11] In his review for The Washington Post, Hal Hinson criticized Leary's performance: "A stand-up comic trying to translate his impatient, hipster editorializing to the big screen, he doesn't have the modulation of a trained actor, only one speed (fast) and one mode of attack (loud)."[12]

American Film Institute recognition:

See also


  1. The Ref at Box Office Mojo
  2. Rea, Stephen (March 14, 1994). "Denis Leary Gunning for the Top". The Philadelphia Inquirer. pp. E05.
  3. Hornaday, Ann (March 27, 1994). "Still Speaking After Writing The Ref". The New York Times. p. 19.
  4. Green, Tom (March 14, 1994). "Denis Leary Changes his Act". USA Today. pp. 1D.
  5. Weinraub, Bernard (March 14, 1994). "Simpson and Bruckheimer, Part 2". The New York Times. p. 11.
  6. Thompson, Bob (March 29, 1994). "King Leary". Toronto Sun. p. 55.
  7. The Ref at Rotten Tomatoes
  8. Ebert, Roger (March 11, 1994). "The Ref". Chicago Sun-Times. Sun-Times Media Group. Archived from the original on October 4, 1999.
  9. Travers, Peter. "The Ref". Rolling Stone.
  10. James, Caryn (March 9, 1994). "A Christmas that Upends Christmas". The New York Times. New York City: New York Times Company.
  11. Gleiberman, Owen (March 18, 1994). "The Ref". Entertainment Weekly. New York City: Meredith Corporation.
  12. Hinson, Hal (March 12, 1994). "The Ref". The Washington Post. Washington DC: Nash Holdings LLC.
  13. AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs Nominees
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