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Review: 'Butterfly' not effective

Alleged thriller inspires derisive laughter

By Paul Clinton
CNN Reviewer

Ashton Kutcher in "The Butterfly Effect."

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(CNN) -- The new film "The Butterfly Effect" premiered last week at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. It got the same reaction there that it did at a private screening in Los Angeles two weeks ago -- laughter in all the wrong places.

Not a good sign for a thriller, but wholly deserved.

Starring Ashton Kutcher -- whose career is currently in overdrive -- this overwrought, over-the-top, ham-fisted potboiler will do nothing to advance his big-screen aspirations.

The basic premise is interesting. "The Butterfly Effect" theory is that a butterfly flapping its wings on one side of the world can eventually precipitate a reaction on the other side -- that the small wisp of air the butterfly affected can, in the future, turn into a hurricane.

In the film, Evan Treborn (Kutcher) realizes he can travel back in time to change the past -- but every time he does so, the future changes because of his action in altering events.

A clever idea. Too bad it doesn't work in this movie.

Abusive events

Treborn has had a horrific childhood, full of sexual and emotional abuse. Throughout his life, he has suffered from memory gaps which have obscured the bad events happening in his life.

Under the care of a psychologist, he's been keeping journals detailing his everyday life. He gets through adolescence, and when he gets to college, he thinks his troubled past is finally behind him.

Kutcher with Melora Walters in "The Butterfly Effect."

Then he starts reading the journals. Suddenly, he's whipped back in time with full knowledge of the present.

At this point Treborn decides not only to alter his own past, but that of his three best friends. They're the overweight Lenny (Elden Henson), childhood sweetheart Kayleigh (Amy Smart) and her deeply disturbed brother Tommy (William Lee Scott). They've all been involved in some very dark and extremely violent situations, particularly sexual abuse at the hands of Kayleigh and Tommy's father, played by Eric Stoltz.

But every time Treborn goes back and tries to stop the abuse, everything goes horribly wrong. And this is also where the film's screenwriters and co-directors, Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber, get derailed.


Every character is laughably extreme. Kayleigh goes from lonely waitress to crack whore to sorority girl, and each time the characterization is so overblown it's ridiculous: She's not just a crack whore, she's the crack whore from hell. She's not just a clean-cut sorority girl, she's the ideal clean-cut sorority girl.

Worse, the impact of the transformations is lost. In one of the altered pasts, Kutcher's character loses both arms during an explosion. The audience reaction was laughter. Laughing at an amputee is not a good sign.

Another cause of undesired humor is Treborn's college roommate Thumper (Ethan Suplee), who appears in most of the alternate realities. He's a fashion victim dedicated to the Goth look. Of course, he's not just Goth, he's GOTH.

This extreme portrayals are true for every actor, at every stage of life. There is no gray area here; everything is drawn in black and white. Subtlety, obviously, is something these two filmmakers are not familiar with.

It's a shame. Kutcher, who is best known for his comedy, is fairly good in the haphazard drama, and Stoltz is usually an estimable actor. The movie must have looked a whole lot better on the page than it does on the screen.

The director of photography, Matthew F. Leonetti, tries his best to give this film a supernatural feel. He uses every film stock Kodak makes attempting to give each of the movie's different time frames a unique feel; he plays around with color; he employs hand-held camera moves and high shutter speeds. Unfortunately, these efforts do nothing but highlight the script's innate mediocrity.

Word of mouth at Sundance about this film was not positive. It will most likely do no better in the open market. The cinematic graveyard called January is a most appropriate place for "The Butterfly Effect."

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