Blame it on The Usual Suspects. Ever since Bryan Singer and Christopher McQuarrie re-introduced '90s audiences (and filmmakers) to the age-old concept of the trick ending, almost every thriller made in the last four years has attempted to be a roller-coaster ride of twists and turns, all leading up to one big revelation that will supposedly knock the viewer flat on his or her rear. At its best, this formula can yield a genuinely suspenseful and surprising movie like the current The Sixth Sense. At its worst, the result resembles last year's disastrous Wild Things, where the plot twisted upon itself so frequently (and illogically) that it became incomprehensible. Then there are films like Best Laid Plans, whose labyrinthine narratives are neither inspired nor ludicrously implausible, but simply enjoyable, if empty-headed, Rubik's Cubes guaranteed to hold the audiences' attention.

Best Laid Plans opens in a small-town bar, where two college pals are enjoying a private reunion celebration. One of them, Bryce (Josh Brolin), is a recent arrival to the predominantly working-class community, while the other, Nick (Alessandro Nivola), has lived there almost all his life, even returning after graduation to care for his ailing father. Since Dad's recent death, Nick has had the urge to move on, but financial debt and other personal problems keep him from leaving once and for all. As the pair reminisce about their school days, a young woman walks into the bar; Nick pays her little mind, but sex-starved Bryce can't take his eyes off of the lovely temptress.

Later that night, Nick receives a frantic phone call from his friend, begging him to come over. He arrives at the mansion Bryce is temporarily house-sitting to find the girl from the bar handcuffed to a pool table. Slowly, Nick pieces the story together from his considerably panicked (and drunk) buddy: Bryce and the girl came home together, had a few more drinks, and then fooled around. Afterwards, however, she suddenly started threatening to go to the police and accuse Bryce of rape. To make matters worse, according to the ID in her wallet, she is only 16 years old. Thus, even if the sex was, as Bryce insists, consensual, he would still be arrested for sleeping with a minor, a crime that carries a hefty prison sentence. Desperate to find a way out of this mess, Bryce turns to his old pal Nick, who somehow appears less than surprised at the evening's events...

Needless to say, the plot thickens, but the less one knows beforehand the better. After all, the success of a movie like Best Laid Plans hinges on its ability to surprise the viewer. Ted Griffin's screenplay is packed with enough red herrings and sudden revelations to keep even the most alert audience member guessing. Taken by itself, however, the script is somewhat clunky; what really makes the film work is Mike Barker's stylish direction. Employing a variety of clever camera movements and editing techniques, Barker fleshes out what seems forced on the page. No matter how much the story twists, the director always seems in complete control of the material. He does go overboard at times-his constant use of a 360-degree pan, for example, quickly becomes irritating-but Barker's confidence and skill at telling a story visually is unmistakable.

In a way, Barker is more the star of this movie than any of the actors, all of whom give relatively unremarkable performances. Of course, the script does not take any great pains to emphasize the characters' humanity; as in most thrillers, they are more or less the pawns of the narrative. Still, Barker could have cast a more expressive performer than Nivola in the lead role. Nick's plight is at the center of the movie, but the actor never brings the character to believable life. Instead, he is tossed around by the mechanics of the plot, wearing the same soulful look on his face.The lack of strong characterization makes the film's final twist particularly hard to swallow. It's not a complete letdown, like the lame series of who-really-did-it revelations that ended Wild Things, but it does seem as if Griffin, having written himself into a corner, chose to take the easy way out. Ultimately, Best Laid Plans is an enjoyable roller-coaster ride that stops short of reaching its destination.

--Ethan Alter