The Butterfly Effect

The theory referenced in the title of “The Butterfly Effect” is the one that says even tiny events can have a profound impact on the course of humanity, like a butterfly flapping its wings in Japan causing Paris Hilton to contract a venereal disease in New York, or whatever.

One wonders about Ashton Kutcher, he of “Punk’d” and “That ’70s Show” and Demi Moore’s boudoir, and what event on the other side of the globe may have caused him to think he could do drama. I don’t blame him for considering the idea, for surely he has seen the success other goofy actors have had when they got serious and started emoting. I mean, did you see the raves Adam Sandler got for “Punch-Drunk Love”?!

It pains me to say it, but Sandler apparently has more talent for drama — or was guided by a better director — than Kutcher. For while “The Butterfly Effect” nimbly walks the line between absurdity and suspense for a while, it is Kutcher’s hammy, amateurish (hammateurish?) performance that ultimately knocks it over the edge.

He plays Evan Treborn, a 20-year-old college student whose childhood was plagued with blackouts and strange occurrences. When he was 7, he drew a picture of himself killing people but didn’t remember drawing it. When he was 13, he and his friends put a firecracker in a mailbox and did some substantial damage, but he doesn’t remember that, either. The neighborhood psycho tried to set his dog on fire because he, Evan, had a crush on the psycho’s sister; again, the memories are gone.

The psycho, Tommy (William Lee Scott), grew up violent, and his sister Kayleigh (Amy Smart) found an unhappy life, too. Their fourth friend, Lenny (Elden Henson), went all beebledy-beebledy after the mailbox incident and never recovered.

Evan kept journals, though, at the suggestion of a psychiatrist. Now, as an adult, he finds that when he reads of certain traumatic events, he is suddenly back in that time and place again, in his younger body, but with his 20-year-old knowledge. Maybe he can prevent some of the many, many tragedies of his childhood, and thus improve the future. If any four lives ever needed fixing, it’s these ones.

You know where this is going, especially if you saw the Halloween episode of “The Simpsons” where Homer kept going back in time and screwing things up. Each time Evan uses his diary to relive the past, he creates a whole new reality in which some things are better and others are worse. (My friend Sean P. Means of the Salt Lake Tribune leaned over and whispered, “When do we get to the one where Ned Flanders rules the world?”) The more intense it gets, the less believable Kutcher is. His demeanor remains laughable, even as he tries desperately to be serious.

He has help dragging the film down, I guess. The script, by co-directors J. Mackye Gruber and Eric Bress (the gentlemen who gave us “Final Destination 2”), is full of ridiculously simplified psychology and many flaws in the space-time continuum. (Why, if he prevented one early trauma, did the additional traumas still occur?) Watch for the delightful moment when a young child moves toward a lit stick of dynamite and says, “Ooh, a sparkler”; watch also for when a character wakes up in a new reality … WITHOUT ARMS!!!! They’re not playin’ this for laughs, either, folks.

If I were Evan, I would be disheartened to realize that no matter what I did to change the past, my reality would always involve having a goatee and a fat roommate. Interesting how some things are inevitable, apparently.

I’ll stop short of calling this a BAD movie, though I will also refrain from calling it a good one. It’s never dull, and it has some legitimate moments of creepiness and suspense early on. The more frenzied things get, though, the more goofy they become. All the finesse goes out the window, never to return, unless someone should go back in time to recast and rewrite the movie.

C+ (1 hr., 53 min.; R, a lot of harsh profanity, several instances of strong violence, some nudity, some sexuality.)