“The Ref” is basically “Ransom of the Red Chief,” with a Christmas twist: it asks what would happen if you were an upscale Connecticut suburban couple, and you, your spouse and your moody adolescent son were taken hostage by a cat burglar – shortly before your relatives were due to visit. And not just any relatives but “those” relatives. You know, the ones who secretly stop off for sustenance on the road before arriving at your house because they dislike your cooking or don’t trust that you’ll be able to adequately feed them. The ones who insist on sticking to the rules, such as that gifts can only be opened at a certain time. The ones who give you truly terrible presents that seem chosen without regard for your age, interests or gender. In this case, the hapless burglar (Denis Leary) decides to pose as the couple’s (Kevin Spacey’s and Judy Davis’s) therapist, which works okay – for about five minutes. Then all hell breaks loose.
When executing a burglary in said ritzy suburb, Denis (and his partner Gus) don’t reckon on a) a startled cat urinating on them, b) being captured on home video, or c) the town being put into lockdown by the local police who are thrilled to have some bona fide excitement happening. Realizing he’s going to have some trouble getting out undetected, Denis then decides to take Kevin and Judy hostage, which he does by popping up in the backseat of their car with a gun. The couple has just returned from marital therapy, which has not gone well. From this, we learn that these are two people who would be better off divorcing, as the only thing they agree on is that the therapist should shut up and let them bicker. (You might think the gun would short-circuit the squabbling, but you would be wrong.)
Once home, he ties them up and extracts the important information that their son is due home from military school shortly, and that their relatives: grandmother (Glynis Johns) and in-laws, (Adam LeFevre and Christine Baranski, plus their two hapless kids). are about to arrive, as well. Meanwhile, the local police chief, who is under pressure to solve the case, instructs his not-too-bright team to watch the video and pay close attention. Also, there is a local who dresses up as Santa every year to entertain the kids, and he is getting tired of always being left milk to drink.
Problems arise when the son (Robert J. Steinmiller Jr.) gets home and finds his folks tied up; it turns out that he is acting out (such as stealing the Baby Jesus from the town crèche) because he resents his parents sending him to military school (though he was a handful before that). Denis realizes his best option is to keep the kid bound and gagged upstairs, so he does (mostly to muffle his whining), then goes downstairs to meet the relatives, who are just in time for Judy’s Scandinavian dinner feast, complete with candlelit wreaths to wear as headgear!
Meanwhile, the police chief gets in a mess with the case, thanks to the bumbling of his staff, but manages to get his own back in an unexpected way.
And Santa, who’s visiting a neighborhood family, gets fed up with the merriment and switches to the harder stuff, pleading lactose intolerance, which will later have an impact on the main story.
Back at Kevin’s and Judy’s, things begin to deteriorate. Various people lose it and confront other people. Even the Christmas tree doesn’t emerge unscathed. At one point, Denis lets Glynis have it, “I know loan sharks who are more forgiving!” he snaps, while she calmly insults the size of his member. But it all ends in a most satisfying way, with the in-laws getting their just desserts, and Denis getting away. Although he still hasn’t manage to shake off the odor of cat urine.