Indeed, the hallmarks of Gen-X ennui infest this oddly impressive debut feature from Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber (the screenwriters behind the clever Final Destination 2). Heroism is at work here, but clouded by much sadness and paranoia. Clearly, these two saw The Dead Zone (notably a gem from Cronenberg's peak) at an impressionable age, and -- not unlike brat-packer Anthony Michael Hall, who recast himself in its image -- took its cues to join the great creative exodus to Canada, where almost all American films of this ilk are shot nowadays.
The story concerns 20ish Evan (marketable funny fellow Ashton Kutcher, playing straight), who is something of a nutcase. We first catch him in the act of ransacking someone's office, hotly pursued, desperate for evidence of something, but quickly we flash back to his childhood self (convincingly played by Logan Lerman at 7 and John Patrick Amedori at 13). In the fashion of a New Line suspense feature, we are afforded some suburban malaise and a creepy piano tinkle à la Elm Street, but this time, the monster is internalized. For about half an hour, we get a dose of Evan's rotten childhood, his broken home, his looped friends, his institutionalized father (Callum Keith Rennie), the local sicko (Eric Stoltz), and, most tellingly, his disturbing blackouts. A friendly doctor (Nathaniel Deveaux) makes a suggestion to Evan's excessively doting mother (Melora Walters): Advise the boy to keep journals, to record every significant event of his turbulent life in prose, the better to comprehend and survive it. Evan does, to his later peril.
Sustaining his '70s cowlicks even though we're in the '80s and '90s, Evan grows up -- part way, anyway -- to become Kutcher. Braying alterna-rock crapola kicks in to inform us that it's Hipster College Time, but even as a cocky psych major ("Was it Pavlov that conditioned his dog to lick his nuts?"), it's amply evident that Evan is still screwed up. He boasts to his huge goth roommate, Thumper (the delightfully game Ethan Suplee), that he's had no blackouts for seven years, but childhood scars remain. In the story's strangest supernatural twist, he learns to reassume his youthful dimensions, literally, via reading from his meticulously preserved journals. Grown-up Evan revisits his childhood blackouts, which radically (dude!) alter the shape of his present. The movie takes its title from the premise of chaos theory that the smallest catalyst in one place or time can cause calamitous ripples in another (it's that "butterfly flaps wings here, causes typhoon there" theory). This Evan learns the hard way.
There's some really good material in The Butterfly Effect, especially considering that the script was written seven years ago, when its creators were significantly younger men. Of particular note are the scenes with Stoltz, who plays the deranged "fuckbag" father of a couple of Evan's friends. Still as boyishly handsome as Kutcher, Stoltz makes a curious choice for a child pornographer -- complete with twisted "Robin Hood" scenarios -- which adds a dizzying sense of fear to his portrayal.
It's also fair to praise the work of Kutcher, in his dramatic debut, as well as Amy Smart, who plays Kayleigh, the "grown-up" version of his childhood sweetheart. Each time Evan messes with the past, he creates a new scenario for himself and a new path for Kayleigh, who becomes, variously, a hard-luck waitress, a sorority bimbo, and a ruined junkie prostitute. Smart is splendid in her transformations, even when she and Kutcher admittedly get bogged down by the sometimes-chuckle-worthy heavy-handedness of the direction.
It's no perfect movie. Kind of like Johnny Depp's appraisal of America, it often behaves like a puppy that feels obliged to growl and gnash its teeth in frightened self-importance. The dynamic among Evan, Kayleigh's malevolent brother Tommy (William Lee Scott), and cracked-up friend Lenny (Elden Henson) becomes increasingly silly until it throws up its hands and goes for the laugh. Much of the "tough talk" here is just plain hilarious, and when Evan goes to prison, it's not mere rape to be feared but rape by evil skinhead Nazis. Thankfully, there's a demographic-pleasing Latino Christian on hand to help out. Actually, though, since elements like the fraternity bullshit come off feeling so much like real life in some circles, much can be forgiven. As a thriller, The Butterfly Effect is iffy and uneven, but as a portrait of a people, it's effective and intriguing.