In a charming Connecticut village, Lloyd and Caroline Chasseur (Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis) are in marriage counseling on Christmas Eve; the session doesn't go well and their problems become evident. Caroline has had an affair, and Lloyd is miserable and blames the problems with their son, Jesse (Robert J. Steinmiller Jr.), on his wife. The marriage counselor Dr. Wong (B.D. Wong), tries to get them to open up, but, behaving professionally, he refuses to intercede on either side.
Meanwhile, a criminal named Gus (Denis Leary) is in the midst of stealing jewelry from a safe in a home he has broken into; however, he accidentally sets off the alarm, a trap door opens and he lands in the basement. Only after he is bitten on the leg by a guard dog is Gus able to escape the house, but his getaway car, driven by his bumbling, alcoholic partner Murray (Richard Bright), is no longer there. Then he runs into Lloyd and Caroline.
Holding a gun on them, Gus orders the couple to drive him to their house. Along the way Caroline and Lloyd continue to argue, with Gus beginning to act as a referee and repeatedly telling them to shut up.
Police set up roadblocks and a reward is posted for Gus. At the house, Lloyd and Caroline continue to argue. A neighbor dressed as Santa stops by, bringing a fruitcake, and two inept police officers go door-to-door looking for Gus. Knowing full well that Murray will seek refuge at a seedy bar, Gus calls the bar and describes Murray to the bartender. He tells Murray to steal a boat for their getaway. Jesse comes home and discovers his parents tied up. Jesse is unhappy, forced to attend military school, and has been blackmailing a commanding officer there named Siskel with photographs of an affair. He prefers Gus to his parents.
Lloyd’s family is en route for the holidays. It includes his brother Gary (Adam LeFevre), sister-in-law Connie (Christine Baranski), their two children Mary and John (Ellie Raab and Phillip Nicoll), and Lloyd’s mother Rose (Glynis Johns), who is extremely wealthy and is a cold, callous, arrogant woman. Gus pretends to be Lloyd’s and Caroline’s marriage counselor, Dr. Wong, since he can't hold everyone hostage. Jesse is tied up and gagged upstairs in his parents' closet.
Caroline and Lloyd are unable to stop fighting, She wants a divorce. Gus' pointed comments goad Lloyd to finally find the guts to stand up to his wife and his mother. Everyone finds out who Gus really is after Rose attempts to go upstairs; Gus puts a gun to her head and Connie, fed up with everybody, says, "Shoot her."
Jesse’s commander from military school (J.K. Simmons) turns up to reveal how he's being blackmailed. Jesse has managed to untie himself and is discovered with his hidden money. Then the neighbor dressed as Santa returns, very drunk, wondering why he never gets a gift in return. He spots the gun and clumsily lunges at Gus, who knocks him out.
The state police arrive and Lloyd, having a change of heart decides he can't 'spend his life sending everyone he cares about to prison' and tells Jesse to take Gus to the docks using a path through the woods. Gus steals the Santa suit and makes it safely to the boat. He escapes, arguing with Murray much the same way he argued all night with Caroline and Lloyd.
Back at home, the couple's bickering even drives away the police. Having aired out their differences throughout the evening with their armed robber's assistance, they make up and decide to stay together and kiss. Their reconciliation is interrupted when John informs them that "grandma Rose is eating through her gag."Denis Leary - Gus
Judy Davis - Caroline
Kevin Spacey - Lloyd
Robert J. Steinmiller Jr. - Jesse
Glynis Johns - Rose
Raymond J. Barry - Lt. Huff
Richard Bright - Murray
Christine Baranski - Connie
Adam LeFevre - Gary
Phillip Nicoll - John
Ellie Raab - Mary
Bill Raymond - George
John Scurti - Lt. Steve Milford
Jim Turner - Phil
Ron Gabriel - Limo Driver
Edward Saxon - Mike Michaels
Kenneth Utt - Jeremiah Willard
Robert Ridgely - Bob Burley
J. K. Simmons - Siskel
B. D. Wong - Marriage Counselor Dr. Wong
Richard LaGravenese co-wrote the film with his sister-in-law Marie Weiss. It was inspired by their families. For example, the dinner scene: "Both Marie and I are Italian Catholics who married into Jewish families, so we do have those big holiday dinners," LaGravenese said. Weiss began writing the script in 1989 after she and her husband moved from New York to California. Inspiration came from an argument she had with him and she thought, "Wouldn't it be great if there were a third party to step in and referee?" She wrote several drafts and consulted with LaGravenese in 1991 and they took it to Disney. The studio approved the project within 20 minutes. LaGravenese spent a year revising the script until he finally got "tired of doing rewrites for executives."
After Ted Demme directed comedian Denis Leary in No Cure for Cancer, a stand-up comedy special for Showtime, they got the script for The Ref and decided to do it. The studio cast Leary based on the sarcastic funny man persona he cultivated in MTV spots that Demme directed. Their involvement motivated LaGravenese to come back to the project. Executive producer Don Simpson described the overall tone of The Ref as "biting and sarcastic. Just my nature."
After test audiences responded poorly to the film's original ending—Gus turns himself in to show Jesse that a life of crime leads nowhere quickly—a new ending was shot in January 1994.
The Ref did not perform as well at the box office as Leary would have liked and he blamed the studio's method of marketing it: "They did me like the MTV guy. And they shortchanged what the movie was all about." The film grossed a total of only $11,439,193 at the domestic box office, after coming in at #4 opening weekend behind Guarding Tess, Lightning Jack and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. Leary made fun of himself in a humorous article written for a 1994 Playboy issue where he is interviewing Pope John Paul II who states he is a fan of Jim Carrey and a surprised Leary asks if he has also seen The Ref, to which the Pope responds how he was told it was very vulgar, and evident by its unpopularity.
Roger Ebert gave it three out of four stars. He wrote, "Material like this is only as good as the acting and writing. The Ref is skillful in both areas." Rolling Stone magazine's Peter Travers praised the performances of Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis: "They are combustibly funny, finding nuance even in nonsense. The script is crass; the actors never." In her review for The New York Times, Caryn James praised Leary's performance: "For the first time he displays his appeal and potential as an actor instead of a comic with a sneering persona." However, Entertainment Weekly gave the film a "C-" rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, "The Ref is crushingly blunt-witted and monotonous in its celebration of domestic sadism." In his review for The Washington Post, Hal Hinson criticized Leary's performance: "A stand-up comic trying to translate his impatient, hipster editorializing to the big screen, he doesn't have the modulation of a trained actor, only one speed (fast) and one mode of attack (loud)."
The film received a 71% "fresh" rating on review aggregate Rotten Tomatoes, with the consensus: "Undeniably uneven and too dark for some, The Ref nonetheless boasts strong turns from Denis Leary, Judy Davis, and Kevin Spacey, as well as a sharply funny script."
American Film Institute recognition:AFI's 100 Years... 100 Laughs - Nominated