Directed by Ted Demme

Written by Richard LaGravenese and Marie Weiss

With Denis Leary, Judy Davis, Kevin Spacey, Robert J. Steinmiller Jr., and Glynis Johns.

In any comedy the funniest moment for us, the audience, is the most miserable for the characters. And so it is in Ted Demme’s brilliantly breezy The Ref, about an akward, pathetic, tragic, overwrought, embarrassing, potentially violent, and ultimately hilarious Christmas Eve dinner at the home of Caroline and Lloyd Chasseur, a genuinely wretched married couple.

Caroline (Judy Davis) and Lloyd (Kevin Spacey) hate each other right down to their cuticles. They spare nothing–neither dreams nor offhand comments nor past transgressions nor intimate confidences–as they scavenge for ammunition for their relentless verbal barrage. Happily, they are not the sort to take up meat cleavers, though we’re convinced they’ve considered it. Volley and serve is their game. Every single word and gesture is hurled back instantly. To spend time with them is to be thrust into an Elizabethan bear pit.

No wonder everybody in the family, from the troubled son Jesse to Lloyd’s suffocating mother Rose to Lloyd’s brother’s brood, dreads coming to another Christmas Eve dinner at the Chasseurs’ (mispronounced “Chaser” or “Chasser” and swiftly corrected by Lloyd: “Sha-soor! It’s 18th-century French Huguenot!”).

This year, as a special treat, Caroline has prepared an authentic Swedish feast, despite the fact that she is universally considered a terrible cook. The highlight of the dinner occurs when the assembled guests, their heads adorned with traditional wreath-and-candle crowns, listen to Caroline describe the agonizing martyrdom of Saint Lucia as they contemplate the lutefisk and lingonberries. In the cinematic history of horrible dinners, this is a moment to savor.

Ghastly as it is, Caroline and Lloyd’s party is made even worse by the presence of an uninvited guest named Gus (Denis Leary), a burglar who took the couple hostage after bungling a heist and who, after threatening to kill them if they reveal who he is, has been introduced to the relatives as Dr. Wong, their marriage counselor. The dinner conversation is a high-speed Ping-Pong game of barely suppressed malice and suspicion, as the overbearing Rose probes “Dr. Wong” (“My mother was Irish,” says Gus. “My father . . . wasn’t”), the kids make faces at the food, and Caroline and Lloyd continue bickering–which they do for the entire picture. Well, until the “Touchstone effect” asserts itself in the last five minutes. But the Davis-Spacey-Leary triangle and their unmanageable contempt is something to see and hear. Which is another way of saying this is the funniest comedy so far this year.

For anyone who doubts that character counts as much as writing in comedy, The Ref is a lesson. The screenplay (evidently a reworking by Richard LaGravenese–he wrote The Fisher King–of an idea by Marie Weiss) doubles as a vacuum cleaner. Without trying very hard, we can spot bits and pieces of Edward Albee, Woody Allen, and other bitter hubby-wifey comedies like The War of the Roses. The film’s opening, in which the camera wanders around a small-town Connectict Christmas scene before craning up to eavesdrop on the couple in the office of their shrink, is only one of several references to It’s a Wonderful Life (I wish everyone would give that movie a rest). In short, The Ref is an extremely familiar package tied up with a bow from “The Ransom of Red Chief” that succeeds on the strength of its acting. LaGravenese’s dialogue isn’t particularly witty on its own, but in the mouths of Davis, Spacey, and Leary it catches fire.

Davis and Spacey are arguably the most attractive fighting spouses since Taylor and Burton hung up their gloves. There’s something in Davis’s eyes, a glare that could wilt flowers and cause small children to burst into flames, that has served her well in similar roles in Husbands and Wives and Naked Lunch. But there’s also a certain inner longing, the stuff of My Brilliant Career, High Tide (her landmark films with director Gillian Armstrong), and A Passage to India. Her Caroline Chasseur has no ulterior motive, except that she wants a more dramatic life than she can possibly have–which galls her. And that’s not the only thing that galls her.

Set against Caroline like a 200-pound lump of sourdough is Lloyd, who, like the Albee-Burton George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, is a man of magnified petty failures. People can’t pronounce his last name, his business venture went bust, his mother and wife rule him, and all he has to defend himself with is an acid tongue. Spacey–memorable, but nowhere near this intense in Glengarry Glen Ross and Iron Will–packs so much frustration into Lloyd we’re sure he’ll snap and destroy everything around him. He doesn’t, but he and Davis provide the brand of dry, grown-up comic sizzle most often missing from films that style themselves “relationship comedies.” Under the relatively low-key direction of Ted Demme (nephew of Jonathan and a veteran of MTV and rap-music vids) the two are so perfectly matched they practically usher in a new era of comedy all by themselves. Of course they aren’t exactly alone.

What to make of Denis Leary? He was unremarkably obnoxious in his stand-up comic persona in No Cure for Cancer (directed by Demme, who appears to be Leary’s handler) and forgettable in Demolition Man, and had worked himself up to a vaguely interesting niche as a blabbermouth heavy in Judgment Night. Now he’s paying it all back with interest. His Gus has the right mixture of bluff incredulity and hard-luck tenacity. The pratfalls, the double takes, the slow burns, the fast burns, the inspired magpie badinage between Gus and his dim-bulb accomplice Murray–Leary hits one after another dead on. His back-and-forth with Glynis Johns and Christine Baranski at the dreadful dinner is good, but his timing with Davis and Spacey approaches priceless.

Demme and the screenwriters take care to fill out the scenario with vividly drawn characters such as Raymond J. Barry’s sardonic police chief and Robert Steinmiller Jr.’s Jesse, a boarding-school blackmailer who yearns to become an outlaw like Gus. But Leary, Davis, and Spacey are the show, each trying to top the other like jazz musicians at a cutting contest. They’re so good we wouldn’t be surprised to hear they were improvising.