It's funny how some actors have it and some just don't. Topher Grace, the young star of the Fox Network's "That '70s Show," appears today in "Win a Date With Tad Hamilton!" and advances his film career with a breezy, self-effacing performance that promises better roles to come. His TV castmate Ashton Kutcher shuffles and smirks his way through "The Butterfly Effect," also opening today, as if the notion of actually giving a performance were a joke. If so, it's on him. A film of singularly boneheaded conceits, "Butterfly" is populated by, and appears to have been made by, stoned college dudes more hung up on oh-wow twists than the need to make sense. It might even be a bad-movie delight if the filmmakers didn't push a ugly view of humanity that seems to stem from too many midnight screenings of "Seven," the David Fincher horror movie that is featured in a theater scene within the film.
Kutcher plays Evan Treborn, a party-hearty guy who is nevertheless so brilliant that a professor claims he will "change how we humble scientists view memory assimilation." (All the dialogue in "Butterfly" lands with the same wet-sandbag smack.) Evan has inherited from his mental-patient father the ability to go back to earlier moments in his life merely by reading his old diaries and furrowing his brow really, really hard.
What happens next is the only fun part of the film: Evan gets sucked into time wormholes, effects changes in his childhood, and gets spit back out in the present day -- at which point all his old memories dissolve and new ones come pile-driving into his brain. This gives him nosebleeds. The movie ping-pongs so violently between time periods that you may get nosebleeds too.
The title comes from the hoary sci-fi chestnut that noodging a tiny aspect of the past will create seismic changes in the present: A butterfly flapping his wings may create a tidal wave on the other side of the planet and yada yada yada. What Evan wants to do is save his childhood sweetheart Kayleigh (Amy Smart) from the clutches of her abusive father (Eric Stoltz, stepping one rung down the career ladder), so he does the brow thing -- Kutcher is very good at this -- and returns to a nasty moment in Kayleigh's basement where he tells the old lech off. Back in the present, Evan's suddenly no longer a slacker but a LaCoste-wearing preppie and Kayleigh his sweet, dull girlfriend. Unfortunately, her brother Tommy (William Lee Scott) has become a homicidal maniac, so it's forward into the past again.
Evan, silly boy, keeps trying to change events and keeps getting hung out to dry by time's pinball machine. He ends up in jail, in an asylum, and, in the movie's wiggiest tangent, in a wheelchair. This has the makings of great black comedy -- something along the lines of the old Peter Cook/Dudley Moore classic "Bedazzled" -- but if the laughs in "The Butterfly Effect" are many, they're also unintentional. Anyway, whatever train-wreck pleasures you might locate here are spoiled by the vile acts the characters commit. There are multiple beatings, kiddie-porn movies, a mother and child die in an explosion, and a dog gets burned alive. Having fun yet?
Kutcher ambles through it all with the shaggy self-assurance of someone who believes his own press, and toward the end of "Butterfly" he starts hamming it up as though even he weren't buying any of this tosh. It's a ruinous mistake. The actor apparently thinks his star is bright enough to survive a January bomb. The reality is he hasn't yet proved he's a movie star at all.
("The Butterfly Effect": *)
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.