When most films traverse the seas of melodrama, they balance it with either a thick layer of absurdity or a heavy reliance on the desperation for passion and love. While a film like Meet the Parents will take an ordinary situation and make it extraordinary with a series of over-the-top gags and painful to-watch bad luck, another, like any of Sandra Bullock's romcoms, will infuse its quirky protagonist with the burning need for love and a host of romantic ideals. Chaos Theory, however, leaves all of that aside and explores the territory of melodramatic love by focusing on the way each character lives their life and reacts to big moments. It has its share of over-the-top moments and sentimental scenes that would make cynical viewers cringe, yes, but those are only a small portion of the experience.
Ryan Reynolds stars as Frank Allen, a man who has built his life on a carefully organized timetable of index cards. He is so invested in this way of life, in fact, that he has made a career out of it; he has written a successful book about efficiency, and teaches others how to live his carefully constructed index card existence. It works wonderfully for him until the day that his well-meaning wife, Susan (Emily Mortimer), turns the clock back ten minutes and shatters the intricate structure of his day. While this may sound like the setup for crazy hijinx where Frank is late for every carefully scheduled meeting that day, director Marcos Siega and screenwriter Daniel Taplitz have a different film in mind. Frank does end up being late for his talk on timeliness and efficiency, but the rest of the night is plagued with misfortune that isn't directly related to that 10-minute mistake. A number of crazy occurrences throw the well-meaning Frank into chaos, and while it looks like each mishap is leading down a definite road, they're only the means to a bigger truth, one that makes Frank question every part of his life.
And this brings us to the most solid piece of the puzzle, the one that holds it all together: When Frank is presented with jaw-dropping news and his carefully planned life spins into chaos, he doesn't completely lose himself. Sure, his life is flipped upside down, but the old Frank is still recognizable in the new Frank. One would assume that Frank would give up his cards and all that made him who he was. Instead, he morphs his habit to embrace the chaos. Instead of laying out step-by-step to-do lists on the cards, he finds a new use for them -- writing down a collection of options, shuffling them, and picking out one by chance. Whatever that card says, he does. While not the best or most rational plan of action, it does allow Frank to step out of himself just enough to deal with the challenges he faces.
In remembering and honoring the basic sensibilities of each character, Chaos Theory crafts a dramatic comedy that is not only easy to watch, but easy to respect. You can see how each character's actions tie into their deeply-set character traits. You're not left to rationalize about why a character does what he or she does; it all makes sense within the confines of the story. For example, when Frank thinks about bringing his life to an end, it isn't by suicide, but what he considers dangerous behavior -- riding a motorcycle no-handed, without a helmet. The old Frank would find his actions ludicrous; the new Frank finds them liberating, and we understand why.
As Frank, Ryan Reynolds tackles this trauma well. There's enough silliness to elicit giggles, enough wry banter to keep things real, and enough heart to make things sweet. He particularly shines opposite Matreya Fedor, who plays his young daughter, Jesse -- their brief moments together on-screen offer a deeper understanding of Frank that isn't accomplished in any other way. Mortimer, meanwhile, does a solid job playing Frank's wife Susan -- a woman who is warm but sometimes unpredictable and swayed by momentary decisions rather than the carefully planned actions of her other half. She provides an alternative to Frank, but does so without seeming like his opposite. As structured and stringent as Frank is, he is fun and upbeat with Susan and Jesse -- a real husband and father rather than a self-obsessed and rigid caricature.
The cast is rounded out with the friends of both leads. Leading the pack is Stuart Townsend's Buddy, the quintessential ladies man who loves his friends, loves the ladies, and also has a bit of an inappropriate attraction towards Susan, who is quickly established as the girl who got away. But there's another cast member who makes things even more interesting -- Frank's lawyer friend Damon, who is played by Chris Martin. Any long-time fans of either actor will recognize that they both got their start together on Nickelodeon's Fifteen. They've both come a long way.
While not the most clever or flashy combination of love and comedy, Siega has created a simple world where Daniel Taplitz's script can thrive. It's one that comes out of the writer's own experiences with life upheaval, when he was diagnosed with cancer, and that personal connection helps make this film a genuine journey, rather than a Hollywood-plotted entertainer. Free of the flashy cuts and flair, Chaos Theory proves to be a sweet journey from start to finish.