Friday, January 23, 2004

Weekend Preview

Lots of things to catch up on, so let's get right to it...

THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT (Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber) (1/22/04, Marcus Crosswoods) Grade: D+

Could the fluttering of a butterfly's wings lead to a typhoon halfway across the world? Chaos theory suggests that it is possible, and the thriller THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT attempts to affirm the idea that the smallest change can trigger a chain reaction leading to monumental shifts.

As a child Evan Treborn (Ashton Kutcher) suffered from blackouts. Doctors couldn't find any physiological problems but recommended that he keep a journal to help in plugging the holes in his memory. The blackouts eventually stop, but when he reads one of his old journals, Evan's past vividly comes to life. He has discovered a way to travel through time. He jumps at the opportunity to change the traumatic history he shares with his friends. Evan finds that alterations to the past put he and his friends on different paths, but the changes aren't always for the better.

Evan's top priority is to save Kayleigh (Amy Smart). His first time travel intervention involves confronting her sexually abusive father (Eric Stoltz). When Evan returns to the present, it appears that everything is right with the world, even if it means he's now one of the fraternity guys he used to dislike. He and Kayleigh are in love and at college together, but the unintended consequences of his actions lead to other problems, necessitating more fiddling with the past.

THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT is absolutely shameless in its fascination with and portrayal of all the ugly things that can happen in life. Directors and co-writers Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber use the cheapest tricks in the book to manipulate the audience. Among the unpleasantries are child molestations, prison sex, a mother and baby blown up by a mail bomb, and a dog put in a bag that is to be set on fire. The depictions of these acts aren't necessarily graphic--often Evan has a blackout before we see what happens--but Bress and Gruber are as subtle as a sledgehammer to the foot in trying to elicit viewer sympathy. This tack fails as the tragedies escalate to the point of being laughable. Kayleigh becomes a heroin-addicted hooker with a big facial scar. Evan may need to fellate a neo-Nazi felon at one point and loses his arms in another scenario.

Those indignities may be what attracted Kutcher to the film. He gets to stretch, shifting from his doofus roles to a dramatic part. While we should be glad that his flirtation with drama didn't translate into him making an insufferable message movie in which he portrays an alcoholic trying to overcome addiction or a physically challenged person whose struggles uplift everyone, THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT won't change opinions of Kutcher the actor. It's hard to take him seriously when the story developments are so extreme. Plus, his comedic associations carry over when they shouldn't. In one scene he runs down the hall in a psychiatric ward. The moment is supposed to be tense, but the way he runs makes it play as comedy.

THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT comes off as a poor man's DONNIE DARKO. With this film and FINAL DESTINATION 2, which Bress and Gruber co-wrote, they show interest in exploring fate. As seen through both films, their worldview is really quite pessimistic, even if THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT softens it in the end. Try as you might, you can't outwit or change fate. It isn't the most reassuring sentiment, but as a reflection of post-9/11 times, it indicates how many feel.

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