Very Bad Things
As Best Laid Plans opens, one could be forgiven for suspecting that this is gonna turn out to be just another flick about men behaving badly. Nick (Alessandro Nivola), a working-class kinda guy with heavy-duty money problems, meets an old college buddy — Bryce (Josh Brolin: Nightwatch, Mimic), an English teacher and academic — for a drink in a seedy bar in their rundown hometown of Tropico. They haven’t seen each other in a while: Bryce escaped Tropico’s slow death for a while, but now he’s back.
Nick and Bryce, never having been particularly good friends in the first place, go their separate ways as the evening ends: Nick leaves Bryce with the girl he picked up in the bar (Reese Witherspoon: Election, Pleasantville), and the two never expect to see each other again. But a few hours later, Nick gets a frantic phone call from Bryce, and when Nick shows up at the mansion where Bryce is housesitting, he find a dangerous and precarious situation.
Bryce has taken the girl home and — he says — had consensual sex with her. The girl, on the other hand, cried rape, and the ID in her bag reveals her to be only 16 years old. “This chick is gonna ruin my life,” Bryce tells Nick, so instead of just letting her leave the house, Bryce dragged her down to the basement, where she remains, bound and gagged.
“I know this looks bad,” Bryce says, and he’s right. The potential for Best Laid Plans to take an offensively bad turn at this point is enormous. While the title does take on precisely the kind of sleazy double entendre you’d expect from a movie the features a sex act going as wrong as it possibly could (though not quite in the way we’re initially led to believe), the characters end up coming across as nothing more unsavory that merely sad and desperate. And the film itself never descends into cheap distastefulness. Instead, it ultimately surprises with its twists — just when you think you’ve got things figured out, the ground shifts under the characters’ feet, and ours, and points us all in a new direction.
That’s not to say that Best Laid Plans doesn’t often rely on its audience sharing its mordant and rather black sense of humor. How is Bryce affected by the commission of a vile act? He “needs to eat something.” An unlikely billboard hovering in the background in one scene reminds us that “Sex with a minor is a crime.” A neon sign informs us of the motto of Tropico, home to a huge recycling plant (where Nick in fact works): “What the world refuses, Tropico uses.” Bryce, a rich kid newly cut off from his parents’ money; Nick, who reluctantly turns to crime in his financial desperation; and Bryce’s accuser, who does the demeaning things she does out of love — all are refuse in their own ways, washed up in Tropico and reconditioned for behaviors none of them ever expected of themselves. (To offer even blacker examples of the film’s humor would ruin the experience for you).
Reese Witherspoon continues her streak of complicated, affecting performances here, as a good girl caught in a bad situation — though through her gentleness we see layers of cunning and manipulation that her character isn’t even aware of at first. Alessandro Nivola, an actor I haven’t seen before, gives Nick a sweet, innocent face with an uncertain something simmering underneath, like he’s trying to play at being smug and assured but doesn’t quite have the heart for it. Unfortunately, Josh Brolin, looking like a chunkier Matt Damon, is as wooden as always, though his arrogant Bryce is not meant to be entirely sympathetic.
Though it suffers a bit from a minor case of happy-ending-itis — the tenor of the rest of the film and its “crime doesn’t pay” message seems to call for a less optimistic wrap-up — Best Laid Plans is a darkly diverting thriller.