It's no urban legend: Ashton Kutcher really is a horrible actor. That truth is refracted unto near-eternity through the prism of "The Butterfly Effect," a psychological thriller about a man who gets to re-experience his past in any number of wildly divergent incarnations.
We're talking about Evan Treborn (Kutcher), a college student coming to terms with some hazily recalled traumas. As a kid, Evan suffered recurring blackouts that coincided with mysterious abuses doled out by the more psychotic parties in his neighborhood. Now several years past his last episode but still curious about what happened, Evan discovers that he can revisit the world of yesterday and change the key moments in his troubled life. How? Simply by reading his childhood journals. (Filmmakers J. Mackye Gruber and Eric Bress -- co-authors of "Final Destination 2" -- snazz up the humble act of reading with showy visual effects, guaranteeing the eventual disappointment of anyone in their target audience who hasn't yet cracked an actual book.)
Over and over again, Evan plunges himself backwards in time to put events to right. When the results are positive, Kutcher's face lights up with a doofus grin that suggests a losing battle with a blunt object; when things become truly mucked up (which is far more often), he feigns dejection by setting his lips a-quiver like an amphibian about to devour an unwary insect. At a recent screening, this far-ranging show of ineptitude inspired embarrassed laughter -- from a capacity crowd that knew "Butterfly" was an Ashton Kutcher movie and hadn't been turned away by the prospect.
It's too bad, because constantly re-ordered realities can be fun. Remember the 1980 PBS-TV adaptation of Ursula K. LeGuin's "The Lathe of Heaven?" But unlike LeGuin's dizzying spiral of cause and effect, the changes Evan wreaks on his own biography seem utterly arbitrary, following no logical pattern and performing no consistent function except to stroke the egos of actors who thought it would be cool to play the same character from multiple points of view. This is also a nastily manipulative movie, wringing melodramatic mileage out of repeated images of infants and animals in extreme jeopardy. What's more, its entire standing as a mystery hinges on the odd assumption that, if you're a kid prone to disorienting blackouts, none of your loved ones will bother to clue you in about anything that transpired while you were under. Ashton Kutcher, you've been punk'd!