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Dude, Where's My Future?: Ashton Kutcher in 'The Butterfly Effect.'

No Effects

The time-travel shock waves aren't up to snuff in 'The Butterfly Effect'

By Richard von Busack

Despite the roundly horrible reviews, the inventive script by directors Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber keeps The Butterfly Effect deep in the "nice try" column. One problem is its fatal case of ass-backwardness--there's only a tiny cameo by the star, Ashton Kutcher, until 30 minutes into the film. Another is that the movie is overproduced. The story is rooted in bad childhood traumas, child porn and pet slaughter, and setting it amid trailer parks sure would have made the first half of the film tougher to shrug off.

Evan (Kutcher) had a depressing childhood, eclipsed by blackouts. What he does remember is that his father was a hopeless schizophrenic. His mother, a waitress (Melora Walters), single-parented Evan. The boy ran with a small gang, including the love of his life, Kayleigh (played by Irene Gorovain as a child and Amy Smart as an adult). The group was involved in a violent tragedy. Kayleigh's father (a cross-cast Eric Stoltz) was a pederast, and her brother was a young psycho--this is indicated, poorly, by having the child wring the neck of a doll.

In college, Evan discovers he has a magical ability to rewrite his past, merely by concentrating on the pages of his diary. When he stares at a page, the words start wavering and he's able to rewrite his life (an effect made by digitized implosion of his surroundings). Evan is able to prevent the tragedies of his youth from occurring. But there's a downside: the decisions he makes change his present life and the lives of the people around him.

The plot has been called silly. Still, in the right hands, this kind of fable could have been very affecting. What keeps this film from really packing a punch is that Evan's trips to the past keep affecting the same five people in his life--Kayleigh in particular.

The Butterfly Effect's premise is borrowed by Ray Bradbury's famous short story "A Sound of Thunder," which will be a film starring Ben Kingsley later this year. The stolen idea is referred to with a "Bradbury University" pennant seen on a student's wall. The Butterfly Effect's title supposedly refers to the chaos theory idea--quoted in Jurassic Park--that one twitch of a butterfly's wing may eventually conjure hurricanes. But the butterfly in Bradbury's story is more specific to this film: an insect accidentally crushed in the prehistoric era sets off shock waves powerful enough to drastically change the future. Or in this case, the butterflylike innocence of children.

The alternative fates here are exactly what is supposed to happen to abused children--the beloved Kayleigh becomes a junkie whore, a suicide (Smart is way out of her depth in this scene). Evan ends as a cripple, a lunatic, a prisoner in danger of getting punked by his fellow inmates. This last fate is the hokiest: Peterson-case fans know that a first-time accused murderer isn't sent to a state prison before his trial.

What would have really raised hackles was if Evan's re-edits of his history had caused more large-scale devastation, depressions or wars.

In Bradbury's story, one crushed butterfly leads, eons later, to crypto-fascist takeover. The rhetoric that the fascist leader was speaking in Bradbury's story wasn't much different from what Ann Coulter says on television, so doing this sequence would obviously be hard to underscore.

As for Kutcher, he's an easy, untroubled presence, with no laughable moments. And he's affecting in his wheelchair scenes. He's very pretty, of course, with his attempted mustache and red lips like Jesus on a Mexican calendar. But the low-key, haunted performance is a little less fun, in his desperation to "Save Her," meaning Kayleigh; we see the words written on block letters on a notebook, a plot point underscored. Firstly, this makes the heroine of this film a woman without a will of her own. Secondly, The Butterfly Effect could have used a moment of real exhilaration when Evan learns he can rewrite the past. If a character's going to be punished for playing God, he ought to be able to enjoy feeling like God at some point.

The Butterfly Effect (R; 113 min.), directed and written by Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber, photographed by Matthew F. Leonetti, and starring Ashton Kutcher and Amy Smart, is playing countywide.

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From the January 28-February 4, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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