It’s 2009—do you know where your childhood went?
By Jared Peterson
Less than five minutes into 17 Again, Zac Efron breaks into a dance routine in the middle of a high school gymnasium. Reflexively, I closed my notebook and looked for an exit. But hey, it’s 1989, the song is Young MC’s “Bust a Move”—he’s just following directions. It seems young hoops hotshot Mike O’Donnell is showing off for his classmates and a college scout there to size him up for a basketball scholarship. When he sees his best girl at the sideline, he trots over for a smooch. She tells him she’s pregnant. I opened my notebook again. Here’s a situation none of those perky teens from Efron’s musical trilogy ever stopped jazz-handing long enough to ponder: follow the dream or… marry the girl you knocked up!
Mike chooses responsibly, and we cut to the present to find him, as embodied by the far less enthused Matthew Perry, beset by harsh realities. He never made it to college, and he can’t quite land a promotion at his boring, soulless job. He’s being ushered out of marriage by that same high school sweetie, now embittered by years of his whining and pining for glory days never come. And worst of all, he looks nothing like Zac Efron anymore. If only a kindly, ethereal janitor who looks like Brian Doyle Murray would cast a spell that transmogrified him back into his strapping younger self. You see where this is going. Mike tumbles into some watery vortex and emerges all young and heart-throbby. Convinced he’s on a spiritual quest to change his life, he naturally goes back to high school—sacred font of all self-knowledge—this time to reconnect with his inner dad and help his alienated kids make the most of their formative years.
Unsurprisingly, 17 Again has nothing to add to this aged and ailing premise. It’s hard to blame director Burr Steers or his screenwriter Jason Filardi—the outline of this project surely read something like, “Add Teen It-Boy; stir thoroughly. (Oh, and make sure he plays basketball and dances.)” In the resulting hot mess, it’s mostly the actors that rise to the top. There are some nice comedic turns from the movie’s second squad, which includes Reno-9-1-1’s Thomas Lennon, The Office’s Melora Hardin and Mad TV’s Nicole Sullivan. Sterling Knight and Michelle Trachtenberg also have some funny moments as Mike’s son and daughter. And as Mike’s neglected wife Scarlett, Leslie Mann—who, with this and her previous role in Knocked Up, is quickly becoming the fetching poster model for man-child marital exasperation—has precious little to work with but is still a bright light in her every scene.
That leaves Zac Efron. He is an actor now well-accustomed to being in almost every shot of a film, and he shoulders the burden of the camera’s gaze with a notable comic dexterity, augmented here by generous donations from the Matthew Perry School of Offbeat Line Readings (Sadly, Perry is all but absent in his own scenes—he looks exhausted and far more disengaged than his sad-sack role warrants.) Efron carries off “parental” pretty well, too. As Mike 2.0 befriends and defends his children in the wilds of senior high, you can almost see, amid the furrowed brow and expert bangs, the familiar widening eyes of a dad glimpsing—again, and for the first time—not just “what kids are doing these days” but how tough it is for them to know how to do anything else.
As it happens, 17 Again serves up the conventional wisdom about teenage life in preprocessed and easily digested chunks. Kids get rowdy while the adults (as far as they know) are away; this amounts to lots of hooting, hollering and colorful plastic cups, though at one point a bespectacled and bewildered nerd wanders into view, stripped naked and guarding his shame with a medieval shield. (You know—boys will be, well, jerks.) Teens speak proudly, if vaguely, of being sexually active, and some of the young ladies literally queue up to be objectified. In a sex education class, the students greedily grab from a basket of condoms, but when Mike makes an impassioned speech about love and abstinence, directed mainly at his daughter and her boorish jock boyfriend, they resolutely toss them back. (Unless he’s willing to follow all of them around, delivering the speech nightly for the rest of their high school careers, I’d say it’s pretty much a wash.) There is some sporadic swearing and a smattering of off-color comments—some double entendre and several references to the care and upkeep of one’s nether regions. There are a couple of slapstick fight scenes, equal parts slap and stick or, sometimes, light saber. Disappointingly, when Scarlett and a friend spill from the car one evening, tipsy after a happy hour, the implication of drunk driving isn’t addressed. And while much fun is had with the latent attraction between Scarlett and this handsome young doppelganger of her husband, I found myself cringing each time he sidled into her personal space. Let’s keep it fair and legal, people.
At an April 18th screening the following films were previewed: My Sister’s Keeper (PG-13), a tearjerker from the director of The Notebook; Land of the Lost (not yet rated), with Will Farrell and Anna Friel—this trailer has bugs, lizards and snarling dinosaurs, and a “freakin’”, “son of a…” and “suck it” (oh, my!); The Proposal (PG-13), with Ryan Reynolds and Sandra Bullock—some implied nakedness and an innuendo about morning-time excitement; Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (PG-13), with Matthew McConaughey and Jennifer Garner—wow, that dude had a lot of girlfriends; Imagine That (PG), with Eddie Murphy; and Year One (PG-13), with Jack Black and Michael Cera—a few slapstick punches and some really nappy hair.
Jared Peterson writes features and movie reviews for Chesapeake Family Magazine. He last reviewed Race to Witch Mountain.