Welcome to The Twelve Ways of Christmas, where we discuss holiday films you’ve already seen or never plan on watching. And why not, right? Every other damn movie site’s doing it, and since when does giving in to peer pressure put you on the naughty list?
With little rhyme or reason, check in from now until The Day That Must Not Be Named for a new entry. And Happy Kwanzaa.
Opposites attract. At least that’s what they say, isn’t it? Presumably at some point in the lives of Caroline (Judy Davis) and Lloyd Chasseur (Kevin Spacey), passionate discord begot hot and heavy romance. Caroline’s a frazzled, noncommittal creative type while Lloyd’s buckled down, black-and-white understanding of right and wrong trembles in the shadow of his controlling, penny pinching-mother (Glynis Johns). These days, Caroline and Lloyd can only bicker over money, failed restaurant businesses, affairs, and the rearing of their delinquent military cadet son (Robert J. Steinmiller, Jr.). Whether their marriage was always this divided is up for debate — a debate with no foreseeable end in sight.
Regardless of how “game” he is for the task (read: he’s not game), serial burglar Gus (Denis Leary) falls, quite literally, into the position of family referee. While finishing up his “one last score” at the suburban palace of the Chasseur’s neighbor, Gus lands himself into a booby trap of Merrie Melodies proportions, getting sprayed with cat urine and falling down a secret chute next to an ornery rottweiler. However Gus manages to escape, he besets a visibly distraught Caroline in a local convenience store, fresh from a draining therapy session with Lloyd and Dr. Wong (B.D. Wong), coaxing the couple at gunpoint to their home, where he ties them up and waits for his getaway driver to snatch an unoccupied boat.
Often typecast as the wry asshole, Leary’s persona is tailor made for Gus’ no-nonsense vigilante. (he towers over the likes of Spacey and Davis in the film’s poster.) Stuck between a bickering couple, and later a full-on Chasseur family Christmas dinner, he soon learns he may have bitten off more than he can chew, and while threats and waving his big gun around work well enough for a while, Gus eventually names himself as the evening’s de facto therapist. Unable to leave this domestic chaos until police finish their sweep of the neighborhood, Gus poses as Caroline and Lloyd’s therapist as Mama Chasseur and Caroline’s in-laws arrive for the evening. Predictably, Lloyd’s prodding mother soon tires of ribbing Caroline’s aggressively authentic candlelit feast and Gus is forced to improvise in his new role. His cocksure dismissal of both marital strife and psychiatric disorders write large raises more than a few eyebrows, but the candid attitude is enough to spark the family into voicing long held grievances. The holiday juxtaposition is further enhanced by the amber hues of cinematographer Adam Kimmel, as the warm glow of ambient mood lighting and a roaring fire come to run sour and yellow under the catharsis of group “therapy.”
As Caroline’s “lucia wreath” headgear demonstrates, the holidays can bear down on us like a gaudy, flaming burden. The Ref enjoys upending rosy Rockwellian portraits of the holidays, and its setup promises interesting directions for its two leads; it also helps to place the frayed ends of an unraveling marriage in the hands of Spacey and Davis, the latter of whom is particularly excellent as a walking, empathetic disaster. but what’s gained from a few more shouting matches and an airing of dirty family laundry on Christmas Eve? With Gus in control, it’s easy to root for Leary’s ironic voice of reason, but barring his formulaic lesson of “right and wrong,” Gus’ lack of emotional baggage turns him into the least interesting eccentric of the bunch. It’s a shame too, given how easily the Chasseurs come to sympathize with their captor, biding time and mapping out a credible escape route to the New Jersey docks. Back at the trashed Chasseur home, Caroline and Lloyd toast glasses, apparently satisfied the latest direction their marriage has taken. Were it not for the visible shocks and squeals but an hour ago, one might think these ugly slugfests were a part of an annual Christmas tradition.
Way #2: The Nightmare Before Christmas
Way #3: Jack Frost (1997)
Way #4: Jack Frost (1998)
Way #5: Jingle All the Way
Way #6: Santa’s Slay
Way #7: Scrooged