Famous for a few goofy movies and the MTV gotcha show "Punk'd," the packaged celebrity known as Ashton Kutcher affords continued evidence that it doesn't take much to become the next Keanu or at least the new Leif Garrett beyond great hair, a pretty smile and excellent handlers.
It helps if you look good on the cover of Cosmo Girl and can raise the temperature of both its demographic and moms old enough to remember Demi Moore. The trick is making it past the "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure" phase of your career to "My Own Private Idaho" and (score!) "The Matrix."
What doesn't help the long march toward international superstardom is lending your name to hooey such as "The Butterfly Effect," a risible would-be thriller that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.
Cowritten and codirected by Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber, who share a screenwriting credit for "Final Destination 2," the film stars Kutcher as Evan Treborn, a college student with a history of blackouts who tries to illuminate the dark holes in his memory.
What happens and why involves some low-grade special effects and a time-traveling conundrum that's been in circulation at least since Ray Bradbury's 1952 story "A Sound of Thunder," in which a man steps on a butterfly in the past and changes the future. (Warner Bros., sister company to New Line Cinema, which financed this film, is set to release a movie based on the Bradbury story later this year.)
In "The Butterfly Effect," Kutcher's character doesn't merely travel into the past (his last name offers a clue to what happens); he plunges into a nightmare involving kiddie porn, animal torture, a blown-up baby, a child-on-child murder and a shameless and unearned nod to David Fincher's "Seven."
As the requisite love interest, Amy Smart gives the film's only professional performance, while co-star Eric Stoltz, as the story's villain, walks somnolent through the scenery with what seems to be barely suppressed mirth. Given the deeply unpleasant plot machinations and amateurish direction, the actor's amusement is understandable.
For his part, Kutcher, a lightweight presence with a gift for fully inhabiting beautiful dumb guys of a particular Southern California vintage, tries very hard not to look bewildered.
What precisely this maladroit exploitation flick, which was bankrolled by the same company that brought us "The Lord of the Rings," has to do with independent film is known only to the festival programmers and movie executives who brought the feature to Sundance.
One guess is that its inclusion in the country's most important film festival had something to do with the fans clamoring for a glimpse the star at the movie's premiere ("We love you Ashton!") and that a little Hollywood glamour goes a long way amid all the snow and sincerity.
For the movie company, of course, it's all good: The star shines bright among the unknowns and the company scores a nice launch for feature that otherwise would have rightfully and very quickly gurgled into the early-year abyss.
'The Butterfly Effect'
MPAA rating: R, for violence, sexual content, language and brief drug use
Times guidelines: Sexual, adult themes and strong violence
William Lee Scott...Tommy
New Line Cinema presents, in association with FilmEngine, a Benderspink/FilmEngine production, in association with Katalyst, released by New Line. Directors Eric Bress & J. Mackye Gruber. Producers Chris Bender, A.J. Dix, Anthony Rhulen, JC Spink. Executive producers Toby Emmerich, Richard Brener, Cale Boyter. Screenplay by Eric Bress & J. Mackye Gruber. Cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti. Editor Peter Amundson. Costume designer Carla Hetland. Music Michael Suby. Production designer Douglas Higgins. Art directors Shannon Grover, Jeremy Stanbridge. Set decorator Sam Higgins. Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes.