As with the recent breakthrough success of comedian Jim Carrey in “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” bets in Hollywood have been placed on edgy, acerbic funnyman Denis Leary to hit the bigscreen jackpot. If anything, Touchstone’s dark comedy “The Ref” would look to be an even longer shot than “Ace” to turn its star into a $ 7 million man. While “Ace” proves anything is now possible, “Ref’s” unrelenting rough language, bitter humor and unbearable characters seem unlikely to generate feel-good numbers for Simpson-Bruckheimer’s first production for Disney.
A high-concept comedy that mixes O. Henry’s chestnut “Ransom of Red Chief” with touches of “Home Alone” and Bunuel’s “Exterminating Angel,””The Ref” mines a few laughs from the case of a high-strung cat burglar named Gus (Leary), who, after a bungled second-story job on Christmas Eve, grabs Connecticut yuppie couple Caroline (Judy Davis) and Lloyd (Kevin Spacey) as hostages while he plots his escape.
The plot-driving problem is that these are two of the most grating, unrelentingly angry neurotics one could find in this otherwise placid L.L. Bean-couture paradise. Gus essentially becomes hostage to their bickering, as his hapless, largely offscreen partner in crime, Murray (Richard Bright), tries to get an escape plan under way.
Co-scripted and co-produced by Richard LaGravenese, whose “The Fisher King” screenplay also mixed seemingly disparate elements of black humor, contemporary social and psychological dysfunction with a life-affirming fade-out, “The Ref” works virtually none of the miracles of his previous effort.
Somewhere in this there was a quirky episodic romp about the therapeutic opportunities for personal growth while being held prisoner. While it may have played as a zany guest shot for Leary on, say, “Married … With Children, “”Roseanne” or any of a dozen other sitcoms with squabbling couples, as a bigscreen vehicle the material feels stretched beyond its limits.
“Ref” takes a one-note premise and claustrophobic setting so far that its eventual message — communication and commitment are good things — arrives DOA after the third or fourth time Leary has carped his disgust at all things yuppiefied.
Unfortunately, this is early in the action and there’s little to follow except repetition of the same points and the addition of more unpleasant characters, in the form of stock in-laws from hell who are dropping in for the standard, awkward yuletide gathering.
With Leary now masquerading as the couple’s marriage counselor, and with the couple’s teen son home from the military academy, where he has worked up a nice business blackmailing his superiors, the complications should kick up a frenzy of farcical opportunities for director Ted Demme (“Who’s the Man”) and Leary’s signature stressed-out Everydude act. Instead it becomes a license for more verbal abuse and ugliness.
Judy Davis is essentially retreading her earlier shrewish role in Woody Allen’s corrosive “Husbands and Wives,” while Spacey fills out his milquetoast-becomes-a-man role serviceably.
Vet character player Bright (“Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid”) connects more strongly in his few moments onscreen, and that’s probably the clearest indication how much the pic needs the real humanity he earnestly projects. Leary does have screen presence and a consistent bite to his bark, but with “The Ref” it’s wasted on the wrong tree.