Matthew Perry, Zac Efron, Leslie Mann, Thomas Lennon, Sterling Knight, Michelle Trachtenberg
(New Line Cinema; US DVD: 11 Aug 2009; UK DVD: 11 Aug 2009)
He remains one of the few House of Mouse minions who has managed to more or less escape the company’s callous, careerist claws. He appears to be creating a life outside of Uncle Walt’s omniscience, with roles taking risks beyond the uber-successful High School Musical franchise. And with 17 Again, tweenager poster boy Zac Efron proves that he really can act. He’s not Edward Norton, or Ryan Gosling, but he has presence here, and a power that’s usually reserved for someone who hasn’t made their name catering to underage girls and disgruntled spinsters. As Mike O’Donnell, big man on his high school campus, Efron relies on many of the talents that have taken him to the top. But beyond the Tiger Beat pout and underfed frame is a star that, if managed carefully, can become something super.
Not that 17 Again‘s by-the-book plotting will help all that much. After seeing O’Donnell give up on the big game (and the basketball scout securing his scholarship) for his pregnant girlfriend, we fast forward almost two decades to see a bitter, disgruntled Matthew Perry falling apart. About to get divorced from his now wife Scarlett (Leslie Mann, likable) and distant from his semi-slutty daughter Maggie (Michelle Trachtenberg) and uncool son Alex (Sterling Knight), he lives with best friend - and super sci-fi geek - Ned Gold (Thomas Lennon). After he gets passed up for a promotion, Mike returns to his alma mater, hoping to find out where things went wrong. Instead, he runs into a mysterious janitor who questions the aging man’s motives. A bizarre rainstorm later, and pushing 40 Mike is…you guessed it, 17 again.
Try as it might for something insightful or different, this latest in a long line of hit or (mostly) miss body switching movies can’t help but fall into formula. Mike is not given back his youth in order to see how life would be had he lived up to his expectations or figured out a way to fulfill his dreams. Instead, the focus is family - winning back a saddened Scarlett, teaching a needy Maggie to believe in herself, helping a lost Alex discover his inner chick magnet. It’s all rote, rerouted by Bringing Down the House scribe Jason Filardi and Igby Goes Down director Burr Steers into a combination of cliché and clarity. For most of its running time, you know exactly where 17 Again is going. Even when threatened by Maggie’s bully boyfriend, we just know that Mike is going to have the last laugh.
That doesn’t mean the movie is a flop, however. Efron, whose biggest onscreen drawback is his ever-changing ‘60s mod hairdo, owns almost every moment, milking the minimal laughs available while playing up the material’s maudlin strengths. While we never quite believe he is a middle-aged man “trapped” in a kid’s slight form, there is still an old soul quality to his performance that propels the plot points forward. You can see Filardi and Steers swinging wide and missing - Lennon’s 40 Year Old Virgin-lite persona is just pathetic - yet whenever they keep the camera on Efron and his co-stars, the film more or less works. This is definitely a project driven by the power of one character’s personality. Take Mike out of the mix and the story is stacked with obvious jokes and uninteresting relationships. With Efron as our guide, we actually care about what’s going to happen.
Still, 17 Again does tend to lap itself. The movie starts with Mike missing out on a big game. Guess where the narrative decides the denouement needs to be? You guessed it. Similarly, Maggie and Alex are presented as teens with a one track mind - and it’s not Algebra they’re panting over. While newly minted mini-dad is trying to help them through the sometimes funny little muddle called life, all they want is a little opposite sex companionship. And then there is the whole creepy cougar subplot which might have made sense when Robert Downey Jr. wooed Cybill Shepherd in 1989’s Chances Are. But with today’s unseemly focus on MILF matron exploitation, no amount of Leslie Mann lightness can undermine the sleazy implications. Luckily, the movie recognizes such risky business, and backs off.
In the end, this is Efron’s battle to win or lose. Either his intended demographic will look at his androgynous charms and Clearasil-covered potency and buy into his move into maturity, or they will leave him lagging like the various members of a ‘90s boy band. In an era where a song and dance man was money, he’d be a million dollar dynamo. Yet there are limits to where this version of Efron can go. By constantly having to cater to the prepubescent crowd, by figuring that all he can do is shill to the one’s who have his Troy Bolton talents memorized, he’ll be pigeon-holed without getting the benefit of a chance to grow. With Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles coming out this Fall, and another effort with Steers (The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud) in production, Efron may finally make his getaway stick.
If he does managed the switch from idol to iconoclast, if he can prove that his onscreen power is more than just proper marketing, Zac Efron could be huge. 17 Again proves that - in bits and pieces. Clearly New Line Cinema and new parent company Warner Brothers are a little lukewarm on his chances. The recent DVD version of the film has absolutely no bonus features to speak of (apparently, all the Efron-ccentric extras were left for the Blu-ray release - boo!) and that’s too bad. This is a decent enough entertainment, a movie that succeeds because of its star’s ability to project flash in the face of formula, to produce heart where others would find a hack. Sure, Matthew Perry is just a casting ploy 10 years too late. Yes, Ms. Mann has delivered finer turns in her husband’s (Judd Apatow) films. But this movie belongs to the former prisoner of a certain Magic Kingdom. Not only has Zac Efron triumphed, he’s paved a path guaranteeing he’ll never have to go back again…probably.