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(1999) (Alessandro Nivola, Reese Witherspoon) (R)

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Suspense/Thriller: A down on his luck young man, who's in deep trouble with some thugs, hopes that an elaborate plan involving his new girlfriend and an old college buddy will solve his problem.
Nick (ALESSANDRO NIVOLA) is a down-on-his-luck young man whose dreams of leaving his recycling center job have been dashed when the inheritance from his father gets depleted down to nothing. While things look up when he meets Lissa (REESE WITHERSPOON), a pretty girl who works at the local veterinarian's office, Nick digs himself a deep hole when he agrees to be a driver for some nighttime criminal activity with his coworker, Barry (JAMIE MARSH).

Although the police don't get involved, Nick suddenly finds himself owing fifteen thousand dollars to a thug with only a few days to raise the money. Combined, he and Lissa figure they have around five of that, so the two set up a desperate plan that involves Bryce (JOSH BROLIN), an old college buddy of Nick's, the wealthy estate he's house-sitting for, and a lot of deception.

As the clock ticks down toward the thug's financial deadline, Nick and Lissa set into motion their elaborate plan that, as expected, doesn't go as smoothly as they wanted and begins to spiral out of control.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
As originally stated in a poem by 18th century Scottish poet Robert Burns, popularized by John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men" and then paraphrased by countless others since then, best laid schemes do indeed often go wrong. In a bit of self-fulfilling prophecy, the filmmakers responsible for plotting Fox Searchlight's "Best Laid Plans" will learn that their plans to make an effective and perfect thriller similarly went awry (without the involvement of any fury rodents).

Such stories of elaborate schemes backfiring and then spiraling out of control are usually told in one of two ways. The most difficult, but usually more memorable and pleasurable ones are the comedies -- such as "Ruthless People" and usually the blacker the better -- where such plans and their resulting complications create ever increasing humorous moments and comical crises for those involved. As anyone who's ever tried to be funny -- at least for a living -- can tell you, however, comedy's hard and particularly so in those sorts of films (just ask anyone who saw "Very Bad Things").

Thus, filmmakers often take the second route for such stories and that involves turning them into dramatic thrillers such as "A Simple Plan." While a bit easier to pull off than their comedic cousins, such stories still need a good set of characters, a strong story and just the right touch to work. The best involve plots where twists and double crosses await unsuspecting characters and moviegoers, and where character motives not only contradict their counterparts', but also leave audiences guessing about their ultimate goals.

Finally, the most notable entries of this genre have a great ending that's not only both plausible and believable, but that also ties up all loose ends and explains everything without having to define and describe each and every motive.

That said, the question that then follows is whether the filmmakers' dramatic thriller plans for "Best Laid Plans'" are actually the "best," or instead are just mediocre or perhaps even poor. Thankfully they're not bad, but they're certainly far from what the title suggests, notwithstanding the obligatory "awry" factor.

Using a bit of the recently popular rewind feature where we see some of the story before the film stops, rewinds and then shows us what led up to that point and then beyond, the picture opens with an intriguing enough premise. With a possible rape, a definite abduction, and the lingering question of how the three "participants" are involved, the film does peak and mostly hold one's interest.

Unfortunately, director Mike Barker ("The James Gang") and screenwriter Ted Griffin ("Ravenous") partially bungle the rest of the elements. While the standard twists and turns are present and everything makes sense by the end -- particularly in hindsight -- the execution of such material isn't great and the involved details aren't as finely tuned or believable as they should have been.

For starters, we never really like or despise the characters enough to care what happens to them -- for good or bad -- and that factor puts a big, splinter-filled stake right through the heart of this production. Without any involvement with the characters of any kind, no number of twists or double crossings will pull us any farther into the story.

In addition, the filmmakers never fully realize the potential of this genre. If audiences are going to see a film like this, they want several things. First, the film needs to offer plenty of continuously developing, clever complications that challenge the planners and either defeat them or make them rise to the occasion. While this film offers some of them, few, if any, have that fun spark that makes them highly memorable.

More important, however, is the need for the characters' motivation and alliances to be in question right up until the last minute, especially since we have the classic triangular "relationship" scenario. Here I kept waiting for Lissa and Bryce to be in cahoots, or even Nick and Bryce to have an ulterior motive beyond what's initially introduced. Alas, none of that occurs and the fact that characters pretty much stick with their original plans deflates the film's possibilities for even greater "fun."

Such films obviously aren't for all audiences, but if you're going to make one and then include a bit where you have a character going off to fake killing another person, those who like these types of films want to wonder if that character is going to, or did actually do the deed. That doesn't happen here and thus the nebulous mystery element is never fully utilized.

To make matters worse, the ending of the film -- the big and presumably shocking revelation -- is a cheap letdown and copout that will probably infuriate those who've given the filmmakers their trust and time to be entertained.

Although not quite bad enough to qualify as a deus ex machina -- the old theater term used to describe a lazy writing ploy where a god would descend from the heavens to explain and wrap up everything -- the ending certainly lets out the film's remaining air. And while it explains some questionable behavior that precedes it -- such as a thug's obvious impersonation of an intense, but intelligent sounding Samuel L. Jackson character -- that doesn't help such matters while their occurring and causing viewers to ponder, "Huh?" while watching them.

The performances, while not great for this sort of thriller, are mostly decent. Alessandro Nivola ("Face/Off," "Inventing the Abbotts"), while not the typical leading man, is okay in the role of the head perp, while Reese Witherspoon ("Pleasantville," "Election") similarly delivers an okay, but not particularly memorable performance. Unfortunately, Josh Brolin ("The Mod Squad," "Nightwatch") inhabits the weakest of the characters, a sniveling, whining sort who ends up as more irritating than anything else.

The film does move along at a good clip and despite its deficiencies should hold most viewers' attention throughout. It's just too bad that more care and development wasn't applied to the production to make it one of those wicked, twist-filled thrillers that keeps audiences on the edge of their seats trying to figure out everything and where the outcome is always in doubt until the well-conceived and shocking ending. An okay suspense thriller, but certainly not as good as it could and should have been, "Best Laid Plans" rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed August 24, 1999 / Posted September 10, 1999

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