Jingle Bell Grok: The Ref

Jingle Bell Grok: The Ref

Dec 25

Merry Christmas, nerds! We’re going to close out Jingle Bell Grok with another Secret Guest Post about the meaning of Christmas. But don’t just take it from me. Read it for yourself!

Jingle Bell Grok: The Ref

I don’t hate Christmas movies. I think Jeff hoped I would say I did, when he e-mailed me after reading my contribution to this article. But truly — I’m currently juggling my holiday plans so that I’m able to watch It’s a Wonderful Life! in the theater, because it’s the only time of year I can do that. I think A Charlie Brown Christmas and The Grinch have beautiful things to say about generosity and fellow- feeling among people. (And beagles. And Grinches. And whatever the hell a Who is.)

But I’d just as soon watch these classics in the bleak cold of February or the doldrums of July. I don’t need affirmation of the basic goodness of man, and the strength of community, during the three weeks of the year that everybody pretends to believe in them. I don’t need to hear the same themes repeated in derivative and inferior forms, multiple times a day, from every possible media outlet, for the last two months of every year.

OK, so maybe I hate Christmas movies just a little bit. Blame the neighborhood my parents lived in for fifteen years. You couldn’t make a left turn onto their street any time from Veterans’ Day to Valentine’s, because the neighbors were competing to see who could get the most lights and plastic reindeer and fiberglass novelty characters into their front yards. Even better, people from other parts of the city would feel compelled to rent buses or limousines and come gawk at the ‘Tacky Light Tour.’ After a few weeks of witnessing this behavior — the crush of humanity, the waste of electricity, and did I mention the reindeer? — I wouldn’t have been nearly so thrilled to witness a miracle of human generosity as I would to have a particularly foul-mouthed stand-up comedian turn up on my street and start yelling at people to shut the fuck up.

That’s why my favorite Christmas movie is The Ref. I’m not claiming this 1994 Denis Leary vehicle is the best movie about Christmas, but it’s the one that the Christmas season actually makes me want to watch. Leary plays a luckless burglar who crosses paths with a suburban couple (Judy Davis and Kevin Spacey, back in the days where everything Spacey touched was guaranteed awesome). In theory, he takes the couple hostage. The reality — a la “The Ransom of Red Chief” — is that spending Christmas with a household of rich, angry WASP’s, for Leary’s character, involves stepping into a circle of hell. It’s a mean, funny, profane little movie, and I love it a lot.

It’s gotten trendy to point out that It’s A Wonderful Life actually delves into some pretty dark themes. To turn that on its head, the dark comedy of The Ref is curiously redemptive. The central conceit of the movie is that the hostage ordeal works as a radical form of marriage counseling. When forced to deal with a crisis, the couple actually speak honestly about their problems. They band together: with each other, with their juvenile delinquent son, eventually even with Leary against Spacey’s horrible mother.

That kind of salvation through adversity is a fantasy, of course, as much as the Grinch’s heart growing ten sizes over a little bit of Who-caroling. But it’s an appealing idea, this notion that your nearest and dearest will come through when it matters. Even if they did just make you sit through a ten-course Scandanavian meal while wearing a candelabra on your head. Even if, sometimes, you secretly wish you could tell them to shut the fuck up.

[Caroline Pruett is part of the team at Fantastic Fangirls, where she writes about comics, usually with fewer F-bombs than she dropped in this article.]


  1. My mom was watching a special on those houses in your hometown the other day and was practically salivating over them. She would gladly have changed places with you.

    And that’s why I can’t criticize that kind of thing–I mean, obviously, the waste of resources is problematic, and calling anything “tacky” is just jerky, but I see the joy that spreads across my mom’s face when she drives past houses like that, and I know that there’s a pure purpose to them, buried beneath all the commercialism.

    In a perfect world, we’d all profess the life-affirming sentiments of Christmas all year long, but in an imperfect world, I’ll take those few bright spots of December joy over nothing.

    (This is not to say that I don’t think this is a lovely, eloquent, well-argued post, of course. But with your writing, that goes without saying. If Kevin Spacey and Denis Leary didn’t both irrationally freak me out, I’d take up your recommendation.)

  2. Oh, I know people like the decorations, even the extreme ones — my dad does, or claims he does, and he’s had to live with it a lot more than I have. I just have trouble enjoying it when I can’t drive through the neighborhood without worrying that I’m going to hit a kid, or get hit by some douche in a stretch Hummer. It’s not like I hate all displays of Christmas decoration; this neighborhood just takes it to an extreme, which seems like a lot of resources for not much purpose.

  3. Excellent piece. And who doesn’t love a well-placed f-bomb (or five)?

    I remember being completely mesmerized by one of the first trailers for this — the one with DL ranting to the camera? And I’m a longstanding admirer of Everything Judy Davis Does. And yet, I have never seen this! I’ll fix that before next Xmas.

  4. Caroline

    @Sarah My brother saw this movie when it came out and raved about it; I didn’t see it until a few years later when I was obsessed with DL’s “No Cure for Cancer” album and was convinced it was the funniest thing ever (I still might think that). There’s a lot more story and character to the movie than I was expecting, though; it’s a nice surprise and a healthy antidote to an excess of holiday cheer. . .while still having a heart, I think.

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