THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT
Reviewed by: Harvey S. Karten Grade: B- New Line Cinema Directed by: Eric Bress, J. Mackye Gruber Written by: Eric Bress, J. Mackye Gruber Cast: Ashton Kutcher, Amy Smart, William Lee Scott, Elden Henson, Eric Stoltz, Melora Walters Screened at: Loews 34th St., NYC, 1/24/04
One of the classic wishes that I'll wager we all have is to change the past in order to make the present easier to take. Think of the classic song, "Yesterday/ All my troubles seemed so far away/ I need some place to hide away/ Oh I believe in yesterday." If a single day can ruin someone's life, think of what five, ten, twenty years of bad decisions can do! Evan Treborn (Ashton Kutcher), barely out of his teens and now a psych. major in college, is so damaged by feelings of guilt (doubtless exacerbated by reading too many books in his major subject) that he comes across as a candidate for suicide. Lucky for him, though, that he finds a way like the Jim Caviezel character in Gregory Hoblit's superb, underappreciated drama, "Frequency," a young man able to communicate with his dead father via a Twilight Zone-like ham radio, advising him how to avoid turning the wrong way while putting a fire.
Unlike "Frequency," however, "The Butterfly Effect" has too darn many changes, so many that one thinks regularly of the great line by the Austrian emperor in Milos Forman's 1984 masterpiece, "Amadeus," "Too many notes." The changes are not really confusing unless you blink while watching and they're preceded in a manner that no arthouse film would attempt by positioning Evan as a man who first sees his handwriting as blurred, then becomes the victim of a virtual earthquake which transports him zoom! into the part of his life that he wants to change.
The great irony of "The Butterfly Effect" and its cleverest conceit is that each time he returns to the past, he makes things worse, until the bittersweet ending that both ties the loose knots and frees Evan from guilt while drastically affecting his relationship with the love of his life.
The story takes root by showing Evan Treborn as a kid who will arrive at middle-school age hanging out with some pals who get off by making trouble. Even in kindergarten he gets into a fix when his teacher discovers that while the other guys in the class are appropriately drawing pictures of what they want to be later in life, Evan sees himself as a knife-wielder killer, blood dripping from his weapon. Suffering frequent blackouts, Evan scares his mom (Melora Walters) and is taken to a psychologist who suggests that the boy keep a journal. The notebooks are intriguing, particularly the scene that finds the young man forced into a kiddie-porn movie set up by the father (Eric Stoltz) of his childhood friend Kayleigh (Amy Smart as an adult). He represses this and a number of other memories including one that finds him as an accessory to manslaughter when a dynamite stick placed in a birdhouse kills the resident and her baby.
If Bill Murray had to revisit a single day in the great comedy "Groundhog Day," improving his fortune month by month via the lessons he learns, then Ashton Kutcher, as Evan, seems unable to make the right changes. His actions land him in jail while people he knows deterioriate, particularly his girlfriend Kayleigh who changes from a knockout of a sorority girl to a hooker who might have used the same makeup artist as did Charlize Theron in "Monster."
Kutcher has not acquired the depth to turn him from a comic character, the schlub as he was as one who related so realistically to Steve Martin's character in "Cheaper by the Dozen." Miscast in a journey that should have used Eric Stoltz to a far greater extent that writer-directors Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber thought reasonable, he is the weak link in a story with real potential, one skirting the genres of sci-fi, horror, fantasy and romance. There is considerable,convincing violence throughout the story perpetrated principally by Tommy Miller (William Lee Scott), unlucky as the son of a pederast and envious of his friend Evan's relationship with his sister. The young Miller beats and virtually kills the people who frustrate him and in one of Evan's attempts to remake the present is stabbed to death as well (though brought to life later on as Evan tweaks his metamorphoses). In one of the bungled changes, Evan's mother is turned from a healthy, caring woman into a victim of metastatic cancer, brought on when she began chain smoking after a tragedy that befalls her family.
"The Butterfly Effect" is well served by the scripters' imaginations and could have been far better with a more convincing performance by the lead male.
Rated R. 113 minutes.(c) 2004 by Harvey Karten at Harveycritic@cs.com
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