Essie Davis

Ryan Reynolds plays a tightly wound efficiency expert whose marital crisis prompts a turn toward seat-of-his-pants living in "Chaos Theory."

Ryan Reynolds plays a tightly wound efficiency expert whose marital crisis prompts a turn toward seat-of-his-pants living in “Chaos Theory.” Pic doesn’t take the rich core concept — which recalls the 1971 cult novel “The Dice Man” — as far as one might like, indeed largely abandoning it for seriocomic melodrama and sentimentality just when it’s starting to build momentum. Still, the lead performers, the brighter fillips in Daniel Taplitz’s screenplay and Marcos Siega’s (“Pretty Persuasion”) assured direction make this a pleasing item overall. Warner’s platform rollout Stateside is likely to produce just modest results, with better news ahead in ancillary.

Learning that his fiancee had an affair during their brief breakup period has given young Ed (Mike Erwin) a serious case of wedding-day jitters. Catching the groom just as he’s about to bolt, prospective father-in-law Frank Allen (Reynolds) insists he hear the tale of his own speed-bumped but lasting marriage. (Coincidentally, Reynolds’ still-in-theaters “Definitely, Maybe” also hinged on a feature-length storytelling flashback.)

Twenty years earlier, Frank was just one of several college-grad pals smitten with Susan (Emily Mortimer), his closest rival being his brash best friend Buddy (Stuart Townsend). Though shy and insecure, Frank is Susan’s pick when she announces she’ll marry within this circle of friends.

Eight years later, they’ve got 7-year-old daughter Jesse (Matreya Fedor) and a handsome home. Susan is a schoolteacher, while Frank has become a success on the self-help and corporate lecture circuit. His bestseller, “The Five-Minute Efficiency Trainer,” advises bending a chaotic world to your will by creating practical to-do lists and obeying them to the letter. “Those who can’t control whim are destined to be controlled by it,” he tells a roomful of suits.

Afterward, aggrieved over a fight with Susan — who’s tiring of his micromanaging ways — Frank gets way too tipsy with a bombshell conference attendee (Sarah Chalke). He flees rather than succumb to her aggressive moves, but then nearly runs over a pregnant woman (Jocelyne Loewen) whom he ends up driving to the hospital himself. The upshot of all this is that Susan comes to believe Frank is not only a philanderer, but also a bigamist and new father.

Subsequently, after a chain of events and revelations, Frank and Susan break up, with Frank feeling he has been entirely wrong about how to live his life. He vows to stop hypercontrolling and to instead rely on “whim, chance, chaos.” Suddenly he’s riding helmetless on a “bitchin’ Harley,” picking barfights, streaking at a hockey game, having extramarital sex and so forth.

At this point, pic retreats from the giddy comedy of Frank’s newfound freedom, going instead in a more conventional family-reconciliation direction. This works OK on its own terms but arrives a mite too soon, and feels like a bit of a letdown. Still, it’ll satisfy auds who want something reassuringly warm and fuzzy after a reel or two of moderate edginess.

Reynolds is again in sharp form, Townsend providing a likeable foil; Mortimer has a more passive role to work with. Vancouver (pic is set in the Pacific Northwest) looks great in Ramsey Nickell’s widescreen lensing, with production designer Sandy Cochrane’s interiors equally inviting.

A couple of joyous ‘70s oldies by ELO and Hot Chocolate are perfectly deployed, but the decision to blanket more emotional scenes in newer soft-rock tunes (mostly by Alex Dezen and the Damnwells) is more distracting than enhancing.

Chaos Theory

Production

A Warner Bros. release of a Castle Rock Entertainment and Lone Star Film Group presentation of a Frederic Golchan Prods. production. Produced by Golchan, Erica Westheimer. Executive producer, Fred Westheimer. Co-producer, Barbara Kelly. Directed by Marcos Siega. Screenplay, Daniel Taplitz.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor, Panavision widescreen), Ramsey Nickell; editor, Nicholas Erasmus; music, Gilad Benamram; production designer, Sandy Cochrane; art director, Margot Ready; set decorator, Peter Lando; costume designer, Tish Monaghan; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS), James Kusan; supervising sound editor, Christopher Aud; stunt coordinator, Jon Kralt; associate producer, Kearie Peak; assistant director, Paul K. Barry; casting, Rick Montgomery. Reviewed at Variety Club screening room, San Francisco, March 3, 2008. MPAA rating: PG-13. Running time: 88 MIN.

With

Frank Allen - Ryan Reynolds Susan - Emily Mortimer Buddy Endrow - Stuart Townsend Paula Crowe - Sarah Chalke Ed - Mike Erwin Peg the Teacher - Constance Zimmer Jesse Allen (7 Years) - Matreya Fedor Jesse Allen - Elisabeth Harnois Damon - Chris William Martin Pregnant Nancy - Jocelyne Loewen

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