Best Laid Plans
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.