DENIS THE MENACE

A friend of mine was a classmate of comedian-actor Denis Leary at Emerson College in Boston in the mid-'70s. He showed me a copy of the college literary magazine, to which both he and Leary had contributed some poetry. I confess I was hoping for an expos‚, hoping to find something maudlin or pretentious with which to twit Mr. Professional Cynic and Nike Huckster.

Alas for me, Leary's stuff turned out to be respectable--dark, prickly free verse too personal and heartfelt to mock even if it stunk, which it didn't. So here, probably for the first time outside of the Emerson Review, is a small sampling of the early verse of Denis Leary, later to star in The Ref: rain

that drowns the whistle
of your stubborn woodgrip skin

I watch you drag through the morningsuburb air out
to a garden cleverly folded
between your Sears Summer Shed and a neighbor's trespassing apple tree
marvelous garden of pumpkins, tomatoes and where are those cucumbers . . .

now you walk back to the house sit at the kitchen table where I need some information about James Joyce for my morning English class but You say you're late--

later than you were last night when my question dropped
flat as a wet bone to the bottom of your glass . . .

One can feel, under the surface of these wistful lines, hints of the tension and grit that Leary was later to channel into his fast-talking comic diatribes. Most major comedians have an element of anger or grievance to their personas, but Leary's is more evident than usual. He paces and seethes while irritably dismissing modern culture as a tissue of mendacious crap, and casting himself in the role of the tough-minded, impatient realist capable of cutting through it. There's no question but that this has its appeal.

Physically, Leary seems a natural for stardom--he's a lean blond of rough, bony-faced Irish handsomeness--and he's been groomed for it with a few supporting roles in mostly forgettable films like Demolition Man. The Ref, his first star vehicle, is a screwball farce in which he plays a jewel thief who, abandoned by his partner (Richard Bright) in an upscale town, takes as hostages Judy Davis and Kevin Spacey. They're a married couple so contentious that they can't stop sniping at each other even in the face of mortal peril. It's Christmas Eve, so pretty soon Leary's got the whole quarrelsome family hostage, including the monstrous mother (Glynis Johns).

The central shtick is that Leary must, out of expedience, play family therapist to this bunch, using his cut-to-the-chase, don't-mince-words brand of tough love--heavy on the tough, light on the love. It's not a bad premise for a farce, and as long as the script, by Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King) and Marie Weiss, sticks to the bristling, bileful repartee of the thief and the couple, the movie's fairly funny.

Leary performs with his usual intensity, and he looks spiffy dressed up for Christmas dinner. But Spacey and Davis are the real thieves in The Ref--they snatch the movie right out of Leary's back pocket.

This material is basically the stuff of cheesy stage farce (and in farce's grand tradition, the conflicts are mostly traceable to shrewish women and men too weak to stand up to them). Shaw it certainly ain't, but theatre vets like Spacey and Davis know how to charge it up. They do something quite remarkable with these utterly stock roles--they make you see how, under all their snide behavior, these two people are likable and worthy of love.

Whenever The Ref leaves this main situation and tries for a broader scope--scenes of the bumbling local cops or busybody neighbors--it congeals. The director, Ted Demme (Who's the Man?), has no feel for this sort of Preston Sturges stuff, and these scenes are poorly scripted anyway. There's one good, small gag involving some dopey cops and a VCR, but otherwise The Ref is, and ought to be, a one-set play.

While he's hot, Leary should consider taking the opportunity to publish a book of his poems. It wouldn't be like one of those vanity volumes by Leonard Nimoy or Suzanne Somers--the guy can really write. And while The Ref isn't bad, and may very well find an audience, if it's to be par for his movie career's course, Leary might want to establish a sideline now.

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