“The Butterfly Effect” takes its title from the chaos theory-derived proposition that if a butterfly flaps its wings on one side of the world, a hurricane might eventually result on the other. But rather than sparking deep thoughts, the film provokes little more internal debate than whether star Ashton Kutcher is marginally more or less talented than Josh Hartnett. This overwrought and egregiously self-serious thriller about the poisonous fruit borne of child abuse grows more ridiculous by the quarter-hour and is poised for a theatrical life span scarcely longer than that of its eponymous insect.
Co-writers/directors Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber, who made the 1998 indie feature “Blunt” and penned “Final Destination 2” for New Line, clearly worship at the House of Fincher, even going so far as to have their characters go see “Seven” at one point. But the distance between master and acolytes could not be more pronounced, and even viewers sucked in by the troubling and mysterious dramatic preliminaries will check out long before it’s all resolved.
With shreds of incident and information parceled out selectively and from different points of view, pic’s structure is nothing if not elaborate. First alarming event has a mother (Melora Walters) being called in by her son’s elementary school teacher because little Evan has responded to an assignment to draw a picture of what he wants to be when he grows up by imagining himself with a bloody knife in his hand astride a pile of corpses.
Evan endures batteries of tests related to frequent blackouts, has a disastrous reunion with his institutionalized dad and is lured into performing in kiddy porn by the father (Eric Stoltz) of his friends Kayleigh and Tommy. Six years later, this trio and another friend, Lenny, plant a stick of dynamite in a suburban mailbox, with unshown tragic results, and the maniacal Tommy sets Evan’s dog on fire, whereupon Evan’s Mom concludes that it might be a good idea to move away.
Jump ahead seven more years, and Evan (Kutcher) is a bearded psych major studying memory assimilation. He hasn’t had any blackouts lately and seems to be an excellent student (Kutcher’s performance lends uncertain support on this score), but he doesn’t do himself any favors by constantly rereading his journals from the bad old days and looking up his friends, none of whom have done well; Lenny’s a bitter mama’s boy, Tommy’s been in juvenile prison and Kayleigh (Amy Smart), whom Evan long ago promised to come back to, looks like she’s been through the wringer three times over.
At about the halfway point, pic shifts into alternate-reality mode, presenting Evan as a well-scrubbed frat boy well on his way to romantic bliss with a beauteous version of Kayleigh until a startling incident lands him in the pen, where he’s about to become prison bitch to some Aryan muscle boys.
Even more revisions of history lie in store, as past events are repeated ad infinitum to mounting levels of tedium and ludicrousness. Evan’s frequent memory flashes are communicated via much eyeball rolling and farcically intense special effects, and it takes Evan nearly two hours of screen time to figure out what he should do, something that will be apparent to any reasonably attentive viewer early on: Just put away the damn journals.
The early antisocial activity of the kids is alarmingly well enacted, but the convoluted nature of the plotting makes the film fold in on itself so many times that the puzzle soon becomes hopelessly artificial and silly.
Acting and tech contributions are unexceptional.