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Best Laid Plans

Review by Cynthia Fuchs
Posted 24 September 1999

Directed by Mike Barker 

Written by Ted Griffin

Starring Alessandro Nivola,
Reese Witherspoon, Josh Brolin,
Rocky Carroll, Michael G. Hagerty,
Terrence Dashon Howard, Jamie Marsh,
Gene Wolande, and Jonathan McMurtry

Reese Witherspoon is, in person, a compassionate, sweet, extremely polite young woman, who attributes her poise to being raised as an old-fashioned "Southern girl." She is sincerely in love with Ryan Phillipe (her husband and father of her new baby), she thinks carefully about her chosen profession and its effects on viewers, and she takes her art very seriously.

Given her thoughtfulness and self-awareness, you could wonder how it is that Witherspoon is repeatedly cast in roles that call for her to be abused and tormented. A quick run-down of her recent parts shows that she has been terrorized by her psycho-stalker boyfriend “Marky” Mark Wahlberg in Fear, menaced by  highway serial murderer Kiefer Sutherland in Freeway, betrayed by her superrich boyfriend Ryan Phillipe in Cruel Intentions, and targeted by her high school teacher Matthew Broderick in Election. From these descriptions, it would appear that the girl can't catch a break.

And yet, through it all, Witherspoon maintains a dauntless grace and admirable ingenuity. She's never annoying or trite. You want her to endure, you appreciate her spunk and intelligence: even when she's playing ostensible trailer trash (Freeway), the ideal virgin (Cruel Intentions), or the supreme high school bitch (Election), she makes all of her characters -- as tough or corny as they might seem at first glance -- complex and sympathetic. And so it would seem, on second glance, that Witherspoon has been making her own breaks.

She almost pulls it off again in her latest movie, Best Laid Plans. Unfortunately, Mike Barker's movie offers her no help whatsoever (the fact that its theatrical opening has been canceled in several major markets, including Washington DC, suggests that distributors are having their own doubts about it). In Best Laid Plans, Witherspoon appears, by turns, battered, naive, and infinitely patient forgiving. Initially, the movie seems to have offered her a chance to move on: for once, she's not cast a high school student, looking for love in the proverbial wrong places. Instead, she's playing an artist named Lissa, a confident and articulate woman who appears to have found love already, by the time the film starts.

Or maybe not. I should back up a minute: the movie actually begins without introducing Lissa as Lissa. Rather, in the pre-opening credits set-up sequence, she enters a bar where two young men are drinking hard. One is Nick (Allesandro Nivola) and the other is his big-mouthed college buddy Bryce (Josh Brolin). They haven't seen each other for years, they're partying, and Bryce has passed into that alcohol-induced state where he thinks he's horny and ready to take on "anything." Enter Lissa, dressed up to look seductive in a trashy way, going by the name of Katey. She picks up Bryce, or he picks her up. It doesn't matter. Cut to the credits. Cut to entwined hands in mid-sex act.

The plot is apparently underway, the plot being one twisty turn after another. After the cryptic sex scene, sometime later that same night, Bryce calls Nick, terrified and incoherent: he sputters, "I'm in big fucking shit!" As he puts it to Nick, the girl -- Katey -- has accused him of rape. As he narrates the events to Nick, he also reveals his anger at this chick for causing all this trouble. He was so distraught, he says, that he was forced to hit her and tie her up in the basement. The film then indulges in some semi-apocalyptic symbolism, suitable for its Southern California setting: on his way to Bryce's, Nick drives by a brushfire and firemen doing battle. They wave him on into the night. You can imagine the dire thoughts you're supposed to be thinking at this point.

Once at his destination, Nick tries to calm Bryce. They pace and fret in a giant living space, very cutting edge decor, very rich. Turns out that the basement where Bryce has this girl stashed is not his own; rather, he's house-sitting for an unseen wealthy guy, who happens to keep very expensive Civil War era bonds in a display case. The plot twists some more. When Nick checks on Katey, who is Lissa, you learn that the two are in cahoots on a caper that involves bilking Bryce (or more accurately, the wealthy house owner) out of some serious loot.

But before you find this out, you see Katey, or Lissa. She is bruised and bloodied, her mouth is gagged, her tears have ravaged her mascara. Nick observes to Bryce, "The situation is not very good." (This Nick, he's not exactly sharp.) Bryce leaves him alone with Katey -- Lissa -- supposedly so Nick can reason with her. And this is when you learn about the cahoots part. The details involve flashbacks showing drug deals and badly managed betrayals and errors in judgment. Apparently, Nick owes some scary, thug-looking motherfuckers some major cash, because he inadvertently took part in a scam he didn't fully understand. He can't pay it back, because he's unemployed. So he and Lissa -- Katey -- cook up a scheme that involves Lissa performing for Bryce. That is, she has sex with Bryce.

You can see that the costs of Nick's errors are high (and the emotional payoff is about as cheeseball as it was in Indecent Proposal where Woody Harrelson pimps his wife, Demi Moore, to Robert Redford). Lissa is the payee, of course. While Nick feels really badly, as events spiral farther and farther out of his control, his anxiety doesn't make up for the bruises on Lissa's face and psyche. That the film uses her physical and emotional violations as a vehicle for Nick's development is its most alarming and ill-considered plot point. It's a point from which the film cannot recover.

Best Laid Plans does set up some tricks for you to figure out, most involving whether or not you trust Nick, who certainly appears to be the character with whom you are expected to identify. But the couple's relationship is so sketchy (not enough flashback time to establish anything beyond basic physical attraction, it seems) that it's hard to sympathize with him or to understand why she would do any of this for him. Nick's motives eventually reveal him to be as heartless as he is bland. The only reason you go along with any of this silliness, is Lissa (and Witherspoon's evocative performance, which extends beyond what could have been on the screenplay page).

Most disappointing is the fact that the movie relies on the unimaginative premise that the specter of an abused girl -- raped, punched, used as bait for a deadly and downright stupid ploy -- stands in for the hero's "development." If she lives and if she forgives him (guess which way the movie goes), then he learns his lesson. This seems tiresome in the extreme.

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