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Chaos Theory

Warner Bros. // PG-13 // June 17, 2008
List Price: $27.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted July 6, 2008 | E-mail the Author
The chaos theory, or butterfly effect, tinkers with the idea that as the fabric of our life shifts and changes through chance and coincidence, more differentiated outcomes can be produced. In short, as things are done a certain way throughout time, the outcome of time itself shifts. We've already endured a time travel version of this same concept with Ashton Kutcher's Butterfly Effect. Much like that trippy moral tale, reviewers and audiences alike seem to be divided over the Ryan Reynolds'-helmed philosophical comedy, Chaos Theory. Honestly, I don't see why; Chaos Theory, as a thoughtful screwball comedy with an undercurrent of reflective tendencies, is a heartwarming and hilarious triumph that finally singles out the Van Wilder and Waiting ... star in a controlled, pitch-perfect pool of light.

The Film:

Reynolds plays Frank Allen, a corporate motivational speaker who concentrates on time efficiency. He preaches what he knows, that's for sure; Allen is a slave to structure and strategic planning via the ticking clock of time. He knows, to the second, the exact minute he must jet out of his home to drive his car to the ferry, park his car, drive over, and arrive at his scheduled location at the precise moment to be punctual. His wife Susan, played by Emily Mortimer in a role vaguely reminiscent to that of her snarling firecracker in Match Point, knows of his submissive nature to time as well. She takes advantage of it, all the while never letting us know whether she finds Frank's eccentricities to be endearing or annoying. Her love comes overshadowed by the fantastic chemistry that Frank and his daughter Jesse have, one that's sweet beyond words but warm enough not to care. We learn all this, as well as about the explosive nature of Frank's problematic romantic past, as he sits and talks with his daughter's husband-to-be just a few hours before their wedding.

Normally accustomed to playing a pompous meathead in most of his roles, Ryan Reynolds has to excise a few decibels of himself for Chaos Theory to give Frank Allen the kind of tangibility that makes him seem like a real dweeb while, in the same breath, getting us to laugh at his charm behind his mannerisms. Subtle nuances with his speech, especially once that nagging twitch of unpunctuality gets under his skin, escalate Reynolds' fumbling discomfort to some really screaming-head points of laughter. The level of restraint Reynolds places on his charisma is a real accomplishment in comedic timing, only letting his humorous sparks come out to play in sporadic little darts. When he pulls out the "cards of fate", it's all downhill from there. Reynolds nails his role in my eyes and gets the ball rolling from the start without the slightest intent on slowing it down.

Honestly, I haven't laughed harder at any recent comedies than I did during quite a few moments in Chaos Theory, especially once the real chaos in the film gets to going like a set of dominoes lined up for miles. It's a situational comedy that hinges on the charismatic quirks of a Monk-meets-C3PO archetype of a character gone awry down a path of infidelity, complicated fatherhood, and the essence of battle between fate and choice, and we're all the more willing to follow when it keeps this kind of twitchy, rolling-through-the-aisles energy. Chaos Theory takes many a turn towards the loony as the fabric of its chaotic world folds and knots with each conflict that pops up in poor Frank's life. Normally, such ludicrous plot points would make my eyes roll, but not here; instead, I ate each character and their complete disjointed miscommunications up with a spoon, especially Frank.

It doesn't hurt that the female characters in Chaos Theory come out with enough well-written energy to counterbalance the controlled testosterone Reynolds embraces. Emily Mortimer fits into a template with Susan - the embittered wife who assumes that her husband is a weak individual who obeys higher powers that she, in her very finite capacity, can tweak to her advantage. She's a simple, lukewarm character that really doesn't do much to alter the tone of Chaos Theory. Instead, she purely interacts with the ludicrous hand that fate dealt Frank on one particular day, playing the reaction game instead of one that'd give her character any excessive substance. Where the passionate, alluring energy comes in is through the anarchistic "temptress" to Frank's well-oiled planning, filled with gusto by Scrubs actress Sarah Chalke. She's perfect for the role, playing another controlling element in Frank's life as he starts to lose his own grip on the solidity of his world.

This control that we as structured humans exercise upon our lives as we try to strike a balance between choice and fate is part of the nonchalant thoughtfulness that radiates from Chaos Theory. Director Marcos Siega isn't out to teach any real lessons behind his and Daniel Taplitz' film of screwball twists and turns, but merely to rustle up a dash of pensiveness behind how tight of a grip we have on our lives. It also respects the sprawling, contusive nature of chaos and the dangers behind complete surrender to anarchy. Chaos Theory plays a balance game between the two within its humorous situational scrambling, and it kept me entertained every step of the way.

In that, it hits a fantastic balance between keeping the humor heavy and keeping the core emotional plot devices rather light and digestible. The notions of chaos, structure, and the amount of realistic control we have over either comes out with more of a nudge-nudge wink-wink style of idea plugging instead of in the form of one of the lectures Frank gives. Chaos Theory gets a lot of tonal and situational elements just right, which leads me to love just about everything about it. From the colorful, gloriously conceived modern cinematography that director of photography Ramsey Nickell achieves within her wide lenses, to the saccharine, uncomplicated ways in which the film comes to its conclusion, director Siega's radiant little comedy is one of laughter and warmth that doesn't neglect its rather substantial and thought-provoking roots.

Chaos Theory is simple when it needs to be simple, complicates just enough to spice things up as needed, and rarely neglects any of its characters as these cinematic dominoes click and tumble in their steady stream. And it's paced well too, sitting right underneath an hour-and-a-half long as a patch of brash complications that could easily have gotten spread too thin much too quickly. Along with Reynolds and the other characters inside, Siega's film knows the boundaries it rides and tinkers with these beliefs in the chaotic nature of our world enough to keep me engaged and, ultimately, spark me to laugh my head off at a character swallowed whole by it. Yet, there's enough attachment to Frank that sympathy also comes through, transcending Chaos Theory into a situation where we laugh with Frank instead of laughing at him during his epiphonic deconstruction.

The DVD:

Warner Bros. sends us Chaos Theory in a standard keepcase DVD presentation, compiling both the widescreen and fullscreen presentation on a single flipper disc.

The Video:

Warner Bros. has been on a hot streak with DVD masters, correcting the mistakes that it made with The Fountain and The Painted Veil discs with some really strong visual efforts. Let's hope that they don't recede back into those problematic practices, because Chaos Theory 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer looks pretty bad. Muddy, grainy, and rife with edge enhancement burps, this DVD transfer turns a gorgeously shot film into a struggle on the eyes when taken in with too much scrutiny. The only element that really pops through without any problems is the level of color replication. Oranges, bright reds and blues, deep greens ... they all looks smashing.

Everything else, from the level of mangled details to the digital compression, seems very poorly executed most of the time. Furthermore, the print just seems to have a blurry veil draped over it at times. A true shame, as one of the film's strengths lies in part in its bold cinematography. There are a few instances where these comments don't apply, such as a scene featuring Frank and his daughter as they blow a little blanket of fog on a cold window. But, for the majority, color is the only strong suit here.

The Audio:

Not quite as bad, but equally as bland, is the English 5.1 Dolby Digital audio track. This is classic romantic comedy conventions at work with this surround presentation, because there sure isn't much "surround" involved. At the most, Chaos Theory sports a mildly expanded Stereo track. But that's not really all that important for this flick; what is, however, is verbal clarity and musical accompaniment, which both rang through without any audible distortion or difficulties in hearing the lines of dialogue. A French audio track is also available, as are optional English, French, and Spanish subtitles.

The Extras:

Additional Scenes:
Bummer. Some deleted scenes that deserved to be axed from this finely-paced comedy are the only supplements available in this package. Behind the awesome cinematography and the ebb-and-flow thoughtfulness lies a lot of cinematic concentration, and I'd absolutely love to see some focus on that context.


Final Thoughts:

Chaos Theory really surprised me, as it left me with a very positive, smile-y tone following its sublime comedic and bitingly pensive efforts. Reynolds' performance as a nerdy numbers-shackled speaker harness a lot of strength, while the rest of the cast and the solid visual presentation keep up the pace with its key actor's energy for its entire runtime. It's a shame that Warner Bros. dropped the ball with the transfer and supplemental material, because there's obviously a lot of context underneath its thoughtfulness and visual style. Chaos Theory is an exceedingly highly recommended comedy, while the poor execution of this disc knocks it down to a merely Recommended effort.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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