'Butterfly Effect': Two Hours Of Idiot Teen-Hunk Exploitation? By Kurt Loder

With new movie, Ashton Kutcher bids farewell to bonehead comedies — for good, if he wants.

Went to a screening the other night of "The Butterfly Effect," the new Ashton Kutcher movie, expecting — what else? — two hours of idiot teen-hunk exploitation.

But 10 or 15 minutes in, it became clear that "The Butterfly Effect" is nothing of the sort. This is a strange and complex and witheringly powerful film, undergirded by the considerable talents of three different ensemble casts, and dominated by an expert and enormously appealing performance by Ashton Kutcher. Yeah, yeah: one-time male model, star of "That '70s Show" and "Dude, Where's My Car?" Whatever. With this movie, Kutcher puts all that irrelevant bio-data behind him and stakes a completely convincing claim as a dramatic actor.

(Click here for "The Butterfly Effect" photos.)

What makes his accomplishment so remarkable — this radical transition from trivial teen fodder to heavy-duty, hard-R grown-up fare — is the fact that it isn't a halting, tentative career step, but a brave creative leap into some very disturbing and sometimes brutal material.

Kutcher plays Evan Treborn, who as a child, along with two friends, is traumatized by the creepy predations of the friends' pedophile father (played with serene sliminess by Eric Stoltz). One of the friends, blonde Kayleigh Miller, whom Evan loves even as a kid, is pitifully diminished by this experience; her brother, Tommy, is transformed into a violent, hate-twisted psychopath. Recruiting another friend, the malleable Lenny, Tommy leads an expedition to vandalize a neighbor's home. The result is murderous and horrific, and the gentle Lenny never recovers from it.

The young Evan's mind represses these awful incidents by blacking out. To track the blank spaces in his memory, a psychiatrist suggests that he keep a daily journal. Years later, in college, when his blackouts begin again, he digs out those childhood diaries and finds that certain passages in them catapult him back into the painful past, where he now has the ability to change things — for the better, he thinks. But when he returns to the present, he discovers that he has colossally screwed up his and his friends' lives in the here-and-now, and will possibly never manage to arrange a longed-for reconnection with Kayleigh.

This "butterfly effect" — a term derived from the idea that even the merest flutter of a butterfly's wing in the present can have unforeseeably disastrous consequences in the future — was described in 1972 by the chaos theoretician Edward Lorenz. However, as a colleague helpfully points out, the great sci-fi writer Ray Bradbury may have first formulated the concept in a 1952 short story called "A Sound of Thunder" (which explains why, in "The Butterfly Effect," the school that Evan attends is called Bradbury University).

But in the hands of Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber, who co-wrote and co-directed "The Butterfly Effect" (and also co-wrote last year's doomy "Final Destination 2"), this concept is elaborated in such intricate detail, careening back and forth between past and present, with three different actors playing each of the lead characters, that you may find yourself making plans to see the film a second time before you've even made it out of the theater after a first viewing.

Or maybe not. "The Butterfly Effect" is a pummeling experience, filled with emotional jolts that can literally rock you back in your seat, and scenes so vividly hideous that, if the camera didn't (usually) pull away at the penultimate moment, they'd be very hard to watch. But the violence in the film isn't gratuitous: The filmmakers don't rub our noses in simple grossness. It's the real violence of really terrible things: of child molestation and brutalization and pure, unprovoked, inexplicable hatred and aggression. Still, the movie may be difficult, or impossible, for some people to sit through.

But it's an extraordinarily well-made film, rich with feeling and unaffected acting (especially by Logan Lerman and John Patrick Amedori as the younger incarnations of Evan, and by Amy Smart, Irene Gorovaia and Sarah Widdows as the various versions of Kayleigh). And for Ashton Kutcher — considering the modest expectations many viewers may be taking into the theater with them — it has to qualify as a triumph. He takes on the role of the affable-but-tormented Evan Treborn with total commitment, and invests the character with a winning emotional openness that I think only a troll could dismiss. On the basis of "The Butterfly Effect," there would seem to be little that he can't do as an actor. Who knows, maybe he can do it all. Should be interesting to watch him try.

Kurt Loder