In Louis Morneau's 1997 time travel road thriller, Retroactive, Frank Whaley plays Brian, a physicist studying time travel. And James Belushi portrays the character Frank, a computer chip thief...and sociopathic Elvis impersonator.
On their way to deliver their stolen goods, Frank and his wife Rayanne (Shannon Whirry) pick up psychiatrist Karen (Kylie Travis) broken down on the side of the road. When Frank discovers that his wife is having an affair, he flies into a rage, kills Rayanne and pursues Karen into the desert where she runs across the time travel lab.
Before you can say "check out the big brain on Brian," Karen gets flux capacitated back in time 20 minutes, where she relives Frank's road production of Raging Bull, reciting the lines along with Frank, Rocky Horror style.
When Karen's attempts to fix the situation inevitably make it worse, she returns to the time lab to an increasingly confused Brian (who doesn't remember her, having just caught up to the time when they first met) and so the Groundhog Day meets Death Proof cycle continues. Each time she travels back, Karen tries a different tactic to contain Frank and each time the situation escalates until...well, wouldn't want to spoil the surprise.
Retroactive is an uneven movie. Beautiful cinematography is coupled with some oddly framed dialogue, with characters speaking off-frame. The performances are decent, but all over the map. From Whaley's standard-but-always-fun "say ‘what' one more goddamn time" stammering confusion to Belushi's more-is-more psycho Elvis to the Blood Simplicity of M. Emmet Walsh, the Tennessee Williams histrionics of Shannon Whirry and the detached cynicism of Kylie Travis, the film feels more like a series of screen tests than a cohesive whole.
Check out these clips on YouTube to get a general sense of the tone from which Retroactive strays not far:
But for its unevenness and its heavy levels of Belushiness, Retroactive does have some interesting thoughts to share about the similarities between time travel and psychotherapy. Karen explains to Frank and Rayanne that the essence of psychotherapy is examining your past life and imagining what you would do differently given a second chance. Who among us couldn't make good use of a 20 minute do-over button?
Yet, as the film progresses through its cycles of repetition and variation, we see that having more and more information in life doesn't always lead to better decisions or better outcomes. As Karen's machinations fail time and time again, the situation with Frank gets worse and worse, involving ever more people. The analogy to the common psychoanalytic insight that mistakes are not so easy to correct and that living in the past only harms the future shine through the story like a polished silver belt buckle.
Unfortunately, the psychoanalytic analogy is undermined by the extreme caricature that is Frank. A more nuanced character could have provided more interesting variations on the story, but as it stands what we see are repeated attempts to muzzle a mad dog. Frank is so utterly predictable, it doesn't take a time machine to figure him out. All that said, Retroactive is an enjoyable ride worth taking once. Once.
Retroactive is available on Netflix streaming. Writer and creative developer Jason Shankel saw some serious shit when Belushi hit 88 miles per hour.