Saturday, July 4, 2009

'17 Again'- Movie Review

The seriously cute, seriously corny 17 again is Zac Efron's first real challenge as an actor outside the safety of the High school musical cocoon. Sure, he played the heartthrob in Hairspray, but that role didn’t require him to stretch his acting muscles. He sang well and provided teen girls with some eye candy, and that was pretty much all that was required of him. But with 17 Again, Efron actually proves he can handle the lead in a non-musical. Surprise, surprise.
17 Again isn’t ground-breaking cinema. The story’s been done many, many times before and in some cases much, much better. Still, the moral is an important one and if it gets through to even 10% of Efron’s fanbase, then I guess you could say its recycled premise was worth revisiting.

The Story

Matthew Perry plays Mike O’Donnell, a man disappointed with every choice he's made since one fateful day in high school. Sad and bitter, Mike just got passed over for a promotion at work and he’s in the process of divorcing Scarlet (Leslie Mann), his wife of 20 years. The two were high school sweethearts but now Mike seems to believe it’s all Scarlet’s fault he didn't follow his dreams and has become, at least in his mind, a failure.

At 17, Mike was a basketball stud on the verge of earning a scholarship to college. However the day the college scouts showed up to watch him play was the same day Scarlet told him she was pregnant. Mike chose to wed his pregnant girlfriend instead of grabbing his one chance at a future in hoops, and has regretted passing up his shot at being something ever since.

Zac Efron and Thomas Lennon in '17 Again.'

Now 37, Mike makes a wish that he could be young again and voila, a ‘spirit guide’/high school custodian makes that wish a reality. Mike wakes up as Zac Efron (because this is a fantasy tale we have to just go with the idea that Perry looked like Efron at 17). Totally confused and weirded out, Mike seeks help from his lifelong best friend, Ned. Ned’s a geeky billionaire with no social life and a house filled with the sort of movie memorabilia every comic book fanboy would kill to own. After a battle involving light sabers and other props, Ned comes to terms with Mike’s sudden regression. Ned thinks the best way to deal with the bizarre transformation is to enroll in the same high school they attended growing up - the same high school where Mike’s two kids now spend their days.

At first Mike’s convinced he’s been sent back to change his own destiny. But soon after enrolling in school Mike gets to talk to - really talk to, not talk at - his kids and quickly learns he really knows nothing about them. He also figures out that maybe helping them through the trials and tribulations of their teen years is what his spirit guide actually meant for him to do. That insight leads him back to his old home and back into the life of his soon-to-be-ex-wife who sees an astonishing resemblance between this new kid and the guy she dated in high school. And you just know that all this interaction with his family leads to everyone involved learning significant lessons about life and doing what’s right.

The Cast

Efron’s terrific as Mike, engaging and sweet, and showing real comedic timing. Plus, he actually pulls off the more dramatic moments with surprising success. Thomas Lennon plays nerdy Ned with a lot of gusto, and truth be told Ned’s the most fascinating character of the bunch. 17 Again would have only benefited from more shared screen time between Lennon and Efron. The always dependable Leslie Mann once again shows why audiences just adore her onscreen. Mann helps keep the film real and grounded, playing a strong, determined mom who’s tried her best to save her marriage but who’s prepared to move on when she realizes it’s a lost cause.

Melora Hardin as the high school principal and newfound object of Ned’s affection is good though underused. Michelle Trachtenberg as Mike’s kind of wild daughter and Sterling Knight as Mike’s introverted son who blossoms under his 17 year old father’s tutelage are fine in supporting roles.

The Bottom Line

17 Again starts off with a man coping with his failures, living with regret, and dealing with the serious issue of divorce. Then the film goes through a screwball comedy period as Mike pops back into his 17 year old body with unexpected side effects (the boy can’t stop eating, has too much energy, etc.).
Leslie Mann and Zac Efron
Leslie Mann and Zac Efron in '17 Again.'

Things turn a bit creepy as his female classmates compete for his attention, his own daughter hits on him, and he discovers he’s still got deep, deep feelings for his soon to be ex-wife that as a 17 year old are highly inappropriate. And then when the lesson has obviously been learned, 17 Again gets all serious and wraps up with a gooey, sweet scene that brings the film back full circle. It’s a predictable story littered with clich├ęd characters and a few downright ridiculous scenes (no high school bully is going to stand still while the new kid in school delivers a 10 minute monologue on why he’s just a loser hiding behind a thick layer of bravado). But Efron’s got a presence on screen that saves the film from being just another toss-away teen comedy.

Director Burr Steers does a decent job of taking an old concept and making it maybe not feel new, but at least sincere. Still, there’s something stagey about the production that made 17 Again not work for me. Maybe it was kicking the movie off with a basketball game in which Mike joins the cheerleaders for a high energy dance number right before the biggest game of his high school career...

Despite its shortfalls, the teens in the preview audience were into the film, applauding the second Efron appeared onscreen and laughing at the appropriate moments. The adults...well, there were a few chuckles from the non-Zac Efron-adoring crowd.

If all you're looking for is silly escapist entertainment, you could do a lot worse.


17 Again is rated PG-13 for language, some sexual material and teen partying.


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