STARRING: Ashton Kutcher, Amy Smart, William Lee Scott, Eric Stoltz, Elden Henson, Evan Suplee, John Patrick Amedori, Logan Lerman, Melora Walters

2004, 113 Minutes, Directed by: Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber

Description: A young man struggling to access sublimated childhood memories finds a technique that allows him to travel back to the past. Occupying his childhood body, he is able to change history. But every change he makes has unexpected consequences.

The Butterfly Effect—or “Dude Where’s My Existential Dilemma?”—has some fun with a neat little premise about parallel universes and all the different lives we could have led.

A college student (Ashton Kutcher of Dude Where’s My Car? and TV’s That 70s Show) travels in time, kind of, and keeps resetting his life and the lives of his friends. Despite all his best efforts and intentions, things keep going awry. It’s kind of like an opium dream after watching the last act of It’s a Wonderful Life, although younger audiences will more quickly compare it to the alternate realities of Back to the Future. The movie is filled with laughs that I suspect are, for the most part, unintentional, and is perhaps ultimately 5 or 10 IQ points a little short of its set-up. But it’s a good try.

Kutcher’s character grows up next door to a family that seems destined for one of those chair-throwing talk shows. Kutcher is in love with the daughter (Amy Smart), who’s not too terribly screwed up. But the pervert father (Eric Stoltz) has twisted his son (William Lee Scott) to the point that people only talk about him slowly, with far-off stares, while phrases like “he’d never hurt you” and “he’s been let out” drift up.

Kutcher himself isn’t the picture of normalcy; he suffers black-outs throughout his formative years, in which he draws ghastly pictures or finds himself holding a butcher knife. And his long-estranged dad (Callum Keith Rennie) is stuck in an asylum, which is never healthy for a child. The movie’s eventual explanation for these black-outs is, if not ingenious, then at least satisfying.

"I’ll always have a soft spot for its noble ambitions and sense of humor
 . . ."

Long after moving away, Kutcher discovers that if he concentrates on his old diary he can actually travel back to those blacked-out moments in his childhood, and change the past. The Butterfly Effect makes good use of child actors who look like their young adult counterparts, with Kutcher played by shaggy-headed youths John Patrick Amedori and Logan Lerman.

As Kutcher alters more and more, we are treated to different versions of the lives of the two families, and our poor time-traveler can never get everything quite right. Just when he makes one or two of his friends happy, another is locked in the loony bin, or Kutcher himself ends up in prison, or the love of his life turns out to be a crack-whore, or, worse yet, a sorority girl. Also thrown into the mix are the fates of Kutcher’s good-looking mom (Melora Walters), heavyset S&M roommate (Evan Suplee), and another neighborhood kid with a proclivity for insanity (Elden Henson).

Butterfly begins with an elementary-school version of chaos theory plastered on the screen, as if Chaos Theory were a dude and this is a quote from his book. The famous application of the theory is that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings can lead to a typhoon on the other side of the world. An odd way to begin to the movie, since all of Kutcher’s time traveling shenanigans only effect his close circle of acquaintances (compare this to the more intentionally jokey Back to the Future films, in which Marty McFly is able to reinvent the identity of an entire town by beating the tar out of punks in the 1950s).

But the mechanics of the paranormal are not what The Butterfly Effect is really about; the movie instead gives us something of a God’s eye view of the choices we make and the cosmic, impossible predicament of trying to do right by everyone. Perhaps the most interesting universe is the one in which Kutcher finds himself a mess but everyone else happy, and we wonder if we would be brave enough to live there.

Actor Ashton Kutcher has a good movie in him, but this isn’t quite it. He gives his time-traveler a straight-ahead approach to the supernatural that I found convincing, but he’s also allowed more personality and humor than is common in these kinds of movies. Usually the dark-haired white guy in sci-fi adventures is little more than a stand-in for the audience, but Kutcher is refreshingly quirky and twitchy. God only knows if the scene of him running down the corridors of an insane asylum in a bathrobe is intended as comic relief, but I laughed my brains out anyway.

I also like that the film seems to exist almost entirely within the universe of the university. A college atmosphere permeates everything: when Kutcher goes to prison, it distinctly has the feel of dirty jokes college-aged kids tell about prison. When we see him in his worst possible form, he has been transformed into a cheating, hazing frat boy.

When someone who was a psychopath in one reality is religious in the next, he hasn’t gone off to the seminary, but is part of one of those well-meaning but vaguely annoying campus crusades for Christ. Even Amy Smart’s crack-whore incarnation feels more like a story that some loudmouth undergrad would tell about a crack-whore than the real thing. And, of course, everyone swears and paces their phrasing just like they would at that age, but that’s only natural because the actors really are that age.

I don’t want to begrudge the movie its unintentional laughs and camp humor. There’s a scene with Kutcher goofing around in a wheelchair that has to be seen to be believed, in which his levity is even more eyebrow-raising considering blood was spurting from his nostrils a few moments earlier.

The Butterfly Effect also gets a socially-irresponsible and naughty kick out of showing vacant-eyed grade school kids puffing at cigarettes. But this is the kind of movie where you find yourself laughing, despite yourself, when someone loses his arms, and all the supposedly-shocking but actually kind-of-predictable transformations from one reality to the next start getting a little snicker-worthy.

The Butterfly Effect also takes about an hour—the entire slow first act—to bring us up to speed on stuff that we already knew from seeing the trailer. And at times it has the sophomoric feel of those teen slasher flicks and scatological sex comedies geared toward high schoolers. I can’t quite give it an unqualified recommendation, but I’ll always have a soft spot for its noble ambitions and sense of humor.

- The Friday & Saturday Night Critic

Not bad at all. But beware: there are all kinds of nastiness - pedophilia, cruelty to animals and some intense violence - involved. So skip it if you’re of a more sensitive disposition. James O'Ehley


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