My Favorite Dysfunctional Family Holiday Movie

The holiday season is so often full of disappointments. Sigh. Usually they involve one’s own family, but this year Krampus is sharing that burden. Heavier sigh.

It’s not a bad movie. It’s not a good movie either. It looks great, but the script — by director Michael Doherty (Trick r’ Treat), Zach Shields (The Conjuring), and Tod Casey (Marvel animated TV stuff) —  is half-baked fruitcake.

The problem: the plot is supposed to turn on a family’s dysfunction, but within the first 20 minutes, the family has boarded up the windows, forgotten their differences and banded together against the big evil. Just like that. Where can such a tale go from there?

Nowhere. The characters, all established in vague, broad strokes, never develop any further. Having already over come their differences, they have nothing to do but fight off twisted Christmas demons. Evil gingerbread men, yeah, cute.*

The lesson this fable teaches? Christmas with your dysfunctional family is better than Christmas with the Anti-Santa and cookies from hell … It’s probably better than a colonoscopy too….

I don’t want to dish against Doherty. I still love the guy, and if this one’s a miss, it’s a respectable miss. (Let’s blame the other two writers.) But it did get me thinking about another dysfunctional family Christmas tale, which has become one of my top-five holiday re-watches over the years: The Ref (Ted Demme, 1994).

“You mean that Dennis Leary movie?” Well, Leary got top billing, but the movie belongs to Judie Davis and Kevin Spacey. In fact, everyone in it is funnier than Leary, and that just adds to the hilarity. Leary plays a “bad guy” burglar who meets his match among the dysfunctional  Connecticut bourgeoisie, everyone of whom is badder than he.

This film, with script by Richard LaGravenese and his sister-in-law Marie Weiss succeeds in a way I wish Krampus had. These characters are all deeply dysfunctional in specific ways — every single character — so as they encounter each other, the plot, as they say, thickens, or at least twists. And of course, they must overcome their differences in the face of an outside threat, but it’s not easy. Their differences become chasms first with past betrayals being revealed and new ones heaped on.

Krampus completely missed the boat there. Yes, it has a supernatural monster instead of Dennis Leary (although some might argue…), but it’s essentially the same story.

Judie Davis and Kevin Spacey in therapy in The Ref (Demme, 1994)
Judie Davis and Kevin Spacey in therapy in The Ref (Demme, 1994)

The Ref starts at a therapy session, in which a very patient therapist (B. D. Wong) tries in vain to get Caroline (Davis) and Lloyd (Spacey) to listen to each other without attacking. I won’t give away the barrage of bitingly funny dialogue, but a teensy sample:

Caroline: Our son’s a very sensitive and creative boy. He has the kind of imagination —

Lloyd: — that the mafia gives scholarships for! [Explaining how he started an escort service at his military academy, and gave out his paternal grandmother’s phone number]

Caroline: And I still say gettin’ laid by an eighteen year-old linebacker is just what she needs!

Meanwhile Gus (Leary) botches a burglary and winds up holding this couple hostage in their home with the extended family members due to arrive for Christmas Eve dinner at any moment. His presence, however, only fuels the flames as they each try to get him to referee.

Gus: From now on, the only person who gets to yell is me. Why? Because I have a gun. People with guns get to do whatever they want. Married people without guns — for instance, you — do not get to yell. Why? No guns! No guns; no yelling. See? Simple little equation.

Their kleptomaniac son, Jesse (Robert J. Steinmiller Jr.) is blackmailing his military school principal (J. K. Simmons) with some illicit photos (“Mapplethorpe” is mentioned).

Glynnis Johns
Glynnis Johns

And then there’s Glynnis Johns — whom you might recognized as the suffragette mother in Mary Poppins — as Lloyd’s over-bearing, rich, tightwad, widowed mother, Rose, who steals every seen with just a minuscule raise of an eyebrow. She’s so bad, Gus finally erupts at her: “I know loan sharks who are more forgiving than you. Your husband ain’t dead, lady. He’s hiding!”

(foreground) Adam LeFevre, Christine Baranski, (background) Ellie Raab, Ellie Raab, Phillip Nicoll

Christine Baranski plays sister-in-law Connie, married to Lloyd’s brother Gary (Adam LeFevre), with their two prepubescent kids in tow. Even the kids have great lines, indicative of the Clinton-era in this case:

Connie: Who would catch a criminal and let him go?

Mary: Republicans?

Raymond Barry is also hilarious as the bitter Lieutenant Huff who hates the locals as much as Gus does. Bill Raymond is George, the gossipy, snarky local who dresses as Santa and goes house to house for free libations becoming more surly at each stop.

The ultimate set piece is the Scandinavian Christmas dinner Caroline has cooked up featuring roast suckling pig, fresh baked kringlors, seven-day-old lutefisk, lamb gookins and Lucia wreaths which each family member wears on his head (pictured above). Saint Lucia, Caroline explains, was betrayed by her husband for giving her dowry to the poor, and burned at the stake, except she did not burn.

Connie: Is this a Christmas story?

Yes, actually, it is. It’s also a Disney movie (Touchstone), produced by Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, of all people.

I am not sure why I relate to and thus love this film so much. I have only ever dreamed of being that bourgeoise! But I like to think if my dark side were ever to leap forth, fully formed, it would look and sound like Judie Davis in this film, over-educated, artsy, loud-mouthed and suffering no fools.

Cinematographer, Adam Kimmel (Capote, Never Let Me Go) bathes all this snark in a classy, candlelit, amber glow, which is at points ironically warm, but ultimately perfectly appropriate. Because ultimately The Ref does have a happy ending, though it originally had a darker ending which test audiences disliked. According to Wikipedia, director Ted Demme always regretted changing the ending, but I can’t imagine it actually worked with a darker ending, because the story arc does seem to lead to exactly the ending it has now. [But what I wouldn’t give for a Blu-Ray with the alternate ending included!]

Demme (nephew of Jonathan) had directed Leary in some MTV spots and a Showtime special, and went on to direct Blow (2001). He died of a heart attack (probably cocaine-related) in 2002, breaking many hearts. I just learned that Teddy’s bar in the Roosevelt Hotel is named after him and owned by his widow. I plan to stop by to raise a toddy glass to him soon, and thank him for this dose of dark humor and spirit that makes me laugh out loud, year after year after year.

*I do want to note that Krampus features an animated flashback sequence that nods at Rankin-Bass holiday specials. I really liked that nod, and the animated gingerbread men, but alas, these elements could not make up for a weak plot. And the evil teddy bear in Housebound was way cooler.

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