Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Feb 12, 2004 11:01 pm 
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A riot of plot-morphing

As I walked out a man asked his wife if she’d go home now and destroy her diaries. I confess the same idea crossed my mind. That’s what Evan Treborn, Ashton Kutcher’s character, has to do in The Butterfly Effect to free himself from endless shiftings into mind bendingly awful new plotlines for his life. By turns he’s a glossy frat boy who has great sex with his girlfriend Kayleigh (Amy Smart); in prison for murder and savagely beaten; severely injured in an explosion so he’s without hands and in a wheelchair and his best friend – in other places a weirdo creep, here a nice guy with long blond hair – has got his girl -- whose evil brother has become a Christian do-gooder. . .and on and on. In fact it’s much more fun to talk about the ridiculously complicated plotlines of this movie than to watch them actually being played out, because a lot of the time they’re nasty or at the very least confusing.

Basically The Butterfly Effect is about two things. Like all tales full of alternative versions, it’s about storytelling itself, and, like the 1001 Nights, about the fickleness of fate. But in the context of the characters involved – who share alternative childhood, adolescent, and college experiences, it’s about teenage angst. The movie plays with young people’s basic questions as they ponder lurid, magnified versions of their formative experiences and form equally lurid, magnified answers to queries like: “Who am I?” “Where am I going?” or “What am I going to become?”

In this and in its prevailing sense of hyperkinetic doom The Butterfly Effect resembles the new youth cult movie Donnie Darko (2001). Darko has no journals inducing blackouts that signal moments their eponymous young man can’t bear to recall. Instead it’s got a countdown to doom, a scary giant rabbit, a school cult, and a brilliant young man who’s slightly deranged – and it’s got the talented Jake Gyllenhaal in his juiciest role to date as Donnie, the brilliant young man.

Whereas Butterfly Effect, which at moments when the story twists stop being fun may just seem like a movie that’s forgotten its plotline, has the appealing young everyman and current flavor of the month, Ashton Kutcher. There’s something undeniably sweet and winning about the pretty-faced Ashton, and that’s fine, because whatever evil deeds Evan may have done are performed by a child actor (sometimes a pretty foul-mouthed one) as Evan at 7 (Logan Lerman), or a tormented adolescent actor as Evan at 13 (John Patrick Amedori). Kutcher, the centerfold version of Evan, never even says “damn,” except when he’s in prison and he obligingly slips into gutter argot. He’s an innocent victim of a childhood tendency to have blackouts (that’s the device that initially introduces all this stuff), and later on of his desire to escape alternative plotlines which may seem good at first but later turn into nightmares, sort of like Dudley Moore making wishes in Bedazzled.

While Ashton manages the mild transition from an attractively hirsute undergrad whose roommate is a giant, obese punker, to the smooth, pampered frat boy, it’s Amy Smart as Kayleigh, his childhood friend and later sometime sweetheart, who gets to do the more challenging shifts from depressed plain Jane in a dead-end waitress job – forever traumatized by the childhood sexual abuses wrecked upon her and her brother and Evan by a drunken, perverted dad (Eric Stolz, having way less fun than in Pulp Fiction); to a scarred, hardened druggie prostitute, to a pretty blond sorority sister – all of this with a lot of help from the makeup and costume departments, of course: but still handling the different turns quite well.

There are some very nasty moments when as child and man, Evan gets brutal beatings – not to mention the mutilations; but, as his many fans will be glad to know (if they don’t already) Ashton never stops looking pretty (the only reason why he gets the acting jobs, his character boldly declares in Cheaper by the Dozen). He looks particularly fabulous at the end as a prosperous psychiatrist. He’s grown up! -- Signaled by having his hair slicked back and wearing a nice suit. He always was studying psychiatry in each plotline, even if they sometimes forgot to mention it. I guess he prepped for his final accreditations by experiencing multiple personality disorder. A bit beyond the call of duty; but then, this movie goes the extra mile.

There’s other nasty stuff. A dog is tied up in a burlap bag and torched in repeated episodes. A mother and her baby are blown up, though thankfully the results are unseen. Eric Stolz as the pedophile drunk dad tries to stage a nude sex scene between seven-year-old Evan and his daughter, with her little brother looking on. But this is the wicked, foulmouthed child Evan, and he’ll have none of it (at least in some versions).

It’s really difficult to summarize this movie and it would be pointless to try. After a while when things get really dicey for the adult Ashton form of Evan, he grabs one of the composition book diaries he’s kept all his life (this is particularly tough when he’s in prison, but he manages somehow to get them brought in), looks up some primal, originally blackout-inducing scene, and, reading it, everything goes blurry and starts to shift and shake – and then a new plotline begins. It’s trippy – a little like a Cronenberg movie, especially the wild 1999 eXisTenZ with its virtual-reality game that taps into people’s minds. That’s basically what’s going on here too. The somewhat confused premise of the blackouts and the journals aside, it’s still fun to watch the alternative versions of Evan’s reality being played out successively. And when he gets a life he can live with, as it were, he burns all the journals and fixes things as they are. And lives happily every after. The End.

Unlike the haunting and truly angst-ridden – if occasionally confused – Donnie Darko, The Butterfly Effect seems unlikely to achieve cult status. But you never know. Given the current popularity of Ashton Kutcher, it should have a healthy video rental shelf life. As you can see in Ashton’s other efforts, he has a light touch that makes everything seem harmless. In The Butterfly Effect that touch keeps the proceedings from becoming flat-out nauseating. Kutcher’s natural manner is compliance and good naturedness. In Butterfly, he seems like a passive victim, who toughs things out. He’s astonished and not a little upset to wake up with his hands missing, but he can deal with it – till he escapes from it. My Boss’s Daughter, a hilarious but tasteless comedy in the post-Farrelly brothers mode of deliberately crude humor, which Kutcher produced as well as starred in, is more typical of the Ashton Kutcher touch. Ashton isn’t really so much a comic as just a lighthearted guy who’s also pleasant to look at. Not capable of occasional drollness like Josh Hartnett, he’s more a straight man than really funny himself: his presence allows funniness to happen around him, as it abundantly does in Boss’s Daughter. After you’ve watched Dude, Where’s My Car?, Just Married, and My Boss’s Daughter, you realize that The Butterfly really is a big stretch for him. But it’s in the nature of a good movie actor to be able to appear in all sorts of situations. It’s interesting to speculate whether an amazing director like P.T. Anderson could morph the Ashton syndrome into something subtler and more troubling, as Anderson did brilliantly with Adam Sandler in Punch Drunk Love.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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