17 Again has two points to make. The first is a message about appreciating what you have and living in the present rather than the past. It’s a standard family-friendly Hollywood message that the film delivers well, but ultimately it isn’t the most overt message. The real message of 17 Again is that life is significantly better if you’re Zac Efron. The film makes little effort to hide the fact that it is simply a vehicle for MrEfron’s considerable charisma and in many ways is more about Efron the person than the character he plays.
Efron plays the younger version of Matthew Perry’s Mike O’Donnell, a former high school heartthrob and basketball star who has spent the last 20 years pining for his glory days. A then-17 year old Mike walked off the court during the big game to propose to his pregnant girlfriend Scarlet. Present-day Scarlett has filed for divorce after having been subjected to years of passive aggressive guilt trips from the cheerless Mike.
In short order, Mike has lost his family, his job, and has been reduced to living with his nerdy best friend Ned (Thomas Lennon). He returns to the spot of the pivotal decision in his life – the high school gym – and is interrupted by a janitor who inquires if he would do it all again if given the chance. Naturally, Mike says yes, and while driving home that night he pulls over and he rushes to save the janitor from falling from a ledge and thus he falls into a time portal.
Mike regains consciousness as his 17-year-old self (Efron). After some comedic misunderstandings with Ned, the pair comes to the conclusion that the janitor was Mike’s spirit guide and his youth has been returned so that he can correct the mistakes in his life. So without a second thought, Mike enrolls in the same high school his children attend as “Mark Gold”.
Handsome, athletic, and charming, Mike/Mark has no trouble rising to the top of the school’s social ladder. Once there, he realizes that his son Alex occupies the bottom rung of that ladder and serves as a punching bag for the brutish captain of the basketball team, who is coincidentally, his daughter Maggie’s boyfriend.
Seeing the plight of his children, Mike abandons his plan of recapturing the dreams of his youth to begin helping Alex and Maggie as Mark. Mark and Alex become friends and training partners in an effort to land Alex a spot on the basketball team Their friendship has the added benefit of allowing Mike/Mark to spend time with his ex-wife, who is flattered but unnerved by the advances of the handsome younger man.
Things become more complicated as the younger Mike grows closer to his family than ever before, leading to him being faced with the same decision as 20 years ago: family or his personal dreams.
17 Again bears some resemblance to the spate of 80s “body swap” comedies such as Vice Versa and Like Father, Like Son. To the film’s credit it doesn’t simply rely on fish out of water humor or bland generational gap observations, but instead creates a fresh, likeable family comedy.
The film’s idea of the younger Mike rediscovering an appreciation for the older Mike’s life is cleverly realized and not overdone. 17 Again does a good job of avoiding the “cringe moments” of awkwardness that have become part and parcel of this type of comedy, making it far more palatable than some of its kin.
Where the film missteps is in not capitalizing on several opportunities to take the story to another level. 17 Again plays it very safe – one could argue wisely so, given star Efron’s key demographics – but there are certainly concepts on display that hint the film could have become a more well-rounded work.
Chief among these is Mike/Mark’s relationship with his daughter Maggie. One of their earliest meetings involves Mark expounding on the virtues of abstinence in an effort to discourage Maggie from sleeping with her boyfriend. Neither the film nor the character of Mike acknowledge the inherent hypocrisy in his message; Maggie was the result of his own premarital indiscretions.
The hypocrisy of not only Mike but of all stereotypical parents who reprimand their children for the same behavior they once engaged in is never fully addressed by 17 Again; that’s a shame, considering that it could have been done in an intelligent and funny way given the quality of the rest of the material.
The film later diffuses a scene of Maggie trying to seduce Mark with a series of gay jokes rather than by addressing the PG-13 unfriendly topic of incest. While Maggie is unaware that Mark is really her father, it seems unlikely that her mother wouldn’t have mentioned that that the two are identical to her or that she had never seen a picture of her father as a young man. One certainly understands why the issue isn’t addressed in the film, but the gay jokes seem a rather crass way of escaping from a situation that could have been handled more intelligently.
The aforementioned gay jokes are at Efron’s expense. The fact that they are a jab at Efron the actor and not Mike/Mark the character is an important facet of the film. Much like its star, 17 Again has a bit of likeable cockiness to it and generally makes no effort to hide its true purpose as simply a star-making vehicle for Efron.
The opening scene of the film is a shirtless, sweaty Efron shooting free throws for several minutes before segueing into a dance number; an unsubtle attempt to let the audience know that they are going to get their money’s worth ten-fold. Despite the film’s main concept of the glory of all things Efron, 17 Again manages to ingratiate itself to you eventually.
It’s rather difficult to not like the film or its charismatic young star. 17 Again is a better-than-average teen comedy; one that will please the teens its aimed at and amuse their parents at the same time.