The Butterfly Effect
Doesn’t January at the Megaplex suck? Studios are highly predictable when it comes to the post-holiday, pre-Oscar season; the films which had tremendous promise at green light, but suffered in the translation between original script and screen, are force-fed to audiences in all their mediocre grandeur. “The Butterfly Effect” fits the formula with determined precision. With Ashton Kutcher fronting the picture, teenage girls will shell out in any season, but in January competition is at its weakest – a perfect moment for New Line to maximize returns on a hopelessly ill-conceived film. The shame of this effort, however, lies not in Kutcher’s tenuous hold on his career; he needs better roles, for his staying power is significant, at least while his looks and the current infatuation with anything ripped out, grungy or just charmingly imperfect holds out. No, the real shame is that helmers Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber are highly effective directors and highly unfortunate screenwriters, and odds are they won’t be giving up the second in favor of the first.
OK, let’s try a synopsis (try to keep up here). Kutcher plays Evan Treborn, who as a child suffers from curious blackouts during dramatically intense moments, usually when surrounded by his three friends Kayleigh (Amy Smart), Lenny (Elden Henson) and Tommy (William Lee Scott). Convinced through offensively unsound reasoning by a psychologist that he should keep a journal, he logs these gaps; then upon re-reading them in college, suddenly finds that he can not only travel back to recollect the moments he lost, but can change the events which have occurred. The Butterfly Effect, which in chaos theory purports that the tiniest of actions (the flap of a butterfly’s wings) can have dramatically large repercussions (a tsunami halfway around the world), comes into play when Evan’s tiny alterations recurse into monumental (and usually disastrous) changes for his present-day life.
This concept, in a word, is tiring. The film’s first hour is mysterious and highly compelling, with abrupt cuts in and out of Evan’s blackouts that are quite shocking – and often hair-raising. But after his first trip “back”, the story unravels into basic dice rolling, wherein Evan just keeps going back in time and haplessly changing things in the hope that his present day life gets better. Unintended comedy replaces dramatic tension as we see ridiculous, usually stereotypical, extremes played out along the way; Kayleigh goes from waiting tables to uptight sorority girl to hooker to just plain dead, and the others fare no better. As we pendulate between these diametrics, the story grows less believable and more comical in its outlandish, overacted premise. Here’s a hint: when the audience laughs at presumtively tragic moments in the script… well, that’s just not a good thing.
Bress and Gruber keep the action moving along at a beautiful clip, determined to see the story through, and although it’s not a great film by any measuring stick, it’s entertaining enough to sit all the way to its conclusion. To their credit, the ending is correct thematically, and doesn’t carry on senselessly beyond the close of the action. These two gentlemen demonstrate the makings of potent artists, but they need to hang their deficient plotting by the door and graduate to team collaboration – there are some things in which they are simply not proficient (concept, story). Put simply, the Wachowski brothers they are not.
That said, perhaps “The Butterfly Effect” is the best of January’s anemic offerings thus far. That’s an inauspicious statement at its very best, and we can hold out for potential newcomers in the pre-Oscar frame… but what I wouldn’t hold is my breath.