Screen gems...with M.V. Moorhead
DVD: The Butterfly Effect

Thanks to the tireless diligence of TV journalists and the supermarket tabloids, there are close and well-loved members of my family about whose personal lives I know less than I do of Ashton Kutcher's.

However, because I missed Dude, Where’s My Car? and haven't watched That '70s Show, I had no experience of this young man as an actor until I saw his star turn in My Boss's Daughter last year.

It was quite startling--even in the context of that appallingly inept and tedious attempt at comedy, Kutcher stuck out as a bad actor.

So it's nice to report that Kutcher's vehicle The Butterfly Effect, available on DVD, is a step up. This lurid metaphysical melodrama is bursting with feverish angst, horrific plot twists and its own brand of flaky illogic. But it isn't dull, and it's at least as unintentionally funny as My Boss's Daughter was unintentionally unfunny. It has the potential to become a kitsch classic.

Summarizing the plot of The Butterfly Effect isn't an easy task, but here goes:

The hero is Evan, played by several excellent young actors and as an adult by Kutcher. Evan’s childhood and adolescence have been troubled, unhappy and dangerous—he's given to blackouts, an early sign of the same mysterious brain affliction for which his father has long been locked up in a mental institution.

His childhood love Kayleigh (played as an adult by Amy Smart) has a loathsome pedophile father (Eric Stoltz) and a crazy, violently jealous brother. After a series of tragedies, Evan’s mother (Melora Walters) moves him away from the neighborhood.

Flash forward to college age, when Evan stumbles on to an unusual method of time travel. He learns that if he reads the handwritten journals he's been keeping since childhood, he can jump back into the situation with his adult perspective and thus change the outcome. In other words, go back and try the road not taken. Having realized that he's capable of this, he starts bustling around in his past, trying to redirect the flow of events so that things work out well for his friends and, especially, for Kayleigh.

This is an admirable device. One of the most basic of all human fantasies is that of the "do-over"—it's summed up in the simple, touchingly impossible refrain of Rod Stewart's loveliest song: "I wish that I knew what I know now/When I was younger."

And the writing/directing team of Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber are quick to exploit the Rod Serling-ish implications of the premise.

Each time that Evan returns to adulthood after a bit of revisionist history, he finds things newly goofed up, in ever more baroque ways. If he goes back and prevents Kayleigh's creepy father from molesting her, he wakes up years later as her boyfriend, in a sort of beer-commercial fantasy of frat boy life.

This doesn't seem so bad at first, until it lands him (improbably, even for this movie) in prison, and an object of desire for burly white supremacists. Oops. So he goes back and prevents the crazy brother from killing his dog, and wakes up to find that Kayleigh is now a pathetic crack addict. So he goes back again and prevents the prank which leads to this outcome, and wakes up to find...

Well, you get the idea. After a while it becomes almost as funny as the Simpsons’ Halloween episode that used the same gimmick—you half expect Evan to start saying "duh!" each time he's cosmically foiled.

But Bress and Gruber keep piling on the sensationalism, Kutcher performs with vigor, and his costars take a gleeful relish in their various incarnations. The appealing Amy Smart is particularly lucky; her role is virtually an audition reel demonstrating her versatility.

Make no mistake, The Butterfly Effect (the title, by the way, refers to the belief that a butterfly beating its wings on one side of the world can lead to a typhoon on the other) is a preposterous movie.

But like many of preposterous movies, it has an undeniable power—it connects with our inner lives in ways that lots of more sensible, subtle, tasteful films don't.

The DVD—Silly as The Butterfly Effect may be, the DVD is lively. It’s presented in “InifiniFilm,” a format which, when activated, offers the viewer optional access to tidbits of documentary and commentary throughout the movie. There are also two documentary shorts, one discussing the history and allure of time travel in the movies, the other summarizing Chaos Theory—just in case you want a little education to go with your tawdry melodrama.

Rated R, The Butterfly Effect is not for younger kids.