"Best Laid Plans" is a sharp contemporary noir thriller that may be a tad too clever for its own good at the finish, but getting there is sufficiently tense and intriguing that you may not mind too much that the overly abrupt ending is somewhat of a letdown. First-time director Mike Barker and second-time writer Ted Griffin, as neophytes, seem to have set the stakes a little too high.
In any event, "Best Laid Plans" is a fine mood piece with lots of atmosphere and boasts terrific performances from its stars. Alessandro Nivola's Nick has dropped out of college to return to his seedy hometown to care for his dying father. He has taken a job at a recycling plant and has the feeling he is going nowhere when he runs into Bryce (Josh Brolin), a friend from school who has just landed a job teaching English at a small college. Bryce is a big, handsome man, more than a little oafish yet grateful for his new gig, having been cut off by his rich parents.
The guys hit a bar, have more than a few rounds, but Nick calls it a night when Bryce starts zeroing in on a pretty girl (Reese Witherspoon) who comes in alone and sits down at the bar. She makes her interest in Bryce crystal-clear.
Hours later Nick is awakened by a frantic call from Bryce, who insists he immediately come up to the lavish modern home that Bryce is house-sitting for its owners. The girl has accused Bryce of rape and threatens to go to the police; in desperation Bryce has bound and gagged her, securing her to a pool table. Bryce is verging on hysteria, not believing he actually raped the girl yet was too drunk to be absolutely sure of himself. He sees his life destroyed in an instant and begs Nick to come to the rescue--somehow.
At this point the film pulls back to reveal the first of its surprises. You don't have to give away the plot to reveal that "Best Laid Plans" is a classic cautionary tale about how a person, not just Bryce but anyone, can take a single misstep in crisis and see his or her life start to come apart. Nick is lots more mature than Bryce, yet he's just as vulnerable to drastic error. Witherspoon's character proves lots more resilient and sensible in the crunch than either of the men.
"Best Laid Plans" is not as individualistic and well-thought-out as the recent, somewhat similar "Dead Dogs," which draws more from life than from old movies, but it has its share of compelling moments. The look of the film, shot in Bakersfield and Ventura County, is seductive in its garish aridity, reminiscent of the bleak urban landscapes of "Paris, Texas."
Until its denouement "Best Laid Plans" maintains a sure sense of pace, but then its timing and rhythm go haywire. The final revelation, which is tricky and treacherous, unfortunately smacks of contrivance and awkward construction. In a sense, "Best Laid Plans" messes up--just like its characters do.
* MPAA rating: R, language and sexuality. Times guidelines: The film is too brutal for children.
'Best Laid Plans'
Alessandro Nivola: Nick
Reese Witherspoon: Lissa
Josh Brolin: Bryce
A Fox Searchlight Pictures release of a Fox 2000 Pictures presentation of a Dogstar Films production. Director Mike Barker. Producers Alan Greenspan, Betsy Beers, Chris Moore and Sean Bailey. Executive producer Mike Newell. Screenplay Ted Griffin. Cinematographer Ben Seresin. Editor Sloane Klevin. Music Craig Armstrong. Costumes Susan Matheson. Production designer Sophie Becher. Art director John R. Zachary. Set designer Sloane U'Ren. Set decorator Nicki Roberts. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.
At the AMC Century 14, 10250 Santa Monica Blvd., Century City Shopping Center, (310) 553-8900; Cineplex Odeon Broadway, 1441 Third Street Promenade (at Broadway), (310) 777-FILM (No. 176) or (310) 827-9588; and the South Coast Village, Sunflower next to Planet Hollywood, South Coast Plaza, Costa Mesa, (714) 540-0594 or (714) 777-FILM (No. 323).