17 Again (2009)
My introduction to tween sensation Zac Efron came last fall. After hearing about the dominance of the High School Musical franchise I decided to finally watch the first made-for-Disney Channel film and see why exactly tween girls were screaming themselves hoarse. And after watching the musical I felt, well, how can I put this diplomatically? It sucked. Hard. First off, the plot only covered auditioning for a musical, not the actual show. What the heck is up with that? How does a movie musical climax around callbacks? Amidst the bland vanilla pop tunes, goofy hoofing, and painfully simplistic life lessons about class-consciousness, there was the overall dreadful acting by the cast. Efron wasn’t the worst actor of the lot but he seemed to go on autopilot, beaming dreamily and leaving his mouth agape long enough to stockpile flies for a long winter. I could not understand why young girls and the media were making such a fuss over Efron. I am clearly not in Efron’s core flock of fawning fans, but after catching his fairly nimble work in 17 Again I think perhaps this guy might be able to break out from the clutches of Disney and grow into his own, unlike Miss Miley Cyrus, who I believe has an ankle bracelet that will detonate if she travels further than 100 feet from the Disney execs. They don’t want another Hilary Duff getting away and sticking a scorpion down her shorts (see: War, Inc.).
Mike O’Donnell (Matthew Perry) hates his life. He’s 37, just been passed over for a promotion at his job, is getting divorced from his wife Scarlett (Leslie Mann), and his two teenage children (Sterling Knight, Michelle Trachtenberg) think dear old dad is a doofus. Apparently, everything was better 20 years ago, in 1989 when Mike was a 17-year-old basketball phenom who had his whole life ahead of him, until he walked out on a climactic game to tend to Scarlett, who just revealed that she was pregnant. Mike wishes he had one last shot to be 17 and have his whole life ahead of him again. Thanks to a magic janitor (I believe it’s really the magic hobo from The Polar Express, except now he’s gone through a work program and become a respectable community custodian), Mike transforms into the visage of his 17-year-old self (Efron). Mike seeks help from his childhood pal Ned Gold (Thomas Lennon), who poses as Mike’s father and enrolls him in the same high school his children attend. This leads to many awkward family encounters.
The body swap genre can be counted on for some decent fish-out-of-water laughs and some earned wisdom. Usually transporting young people into older bodies allows for more comedy because it leads to more socially awkward moments and the exaggerations of trying to be old before your time. 17 Again is consistently amusing enough and I was pleased that it found fun plot developments to explore from its body swap angle. So Mike is young once more but that doesn’t stop him from having, on the surface, inappropriate feelings for Scarlett. On top of that, teen Mike must beware the romantic advances of his own teenage daughter. Yes, the movie simultaneously explores robbing-the-cradle romance while dodging incestuous pratfalls al la Back to the Future. There is uncomfortable father-daughter sexual tension without getting too perverse. These two wrinkles nicely take advantage of the older person body swap premise and add some spice to an otherwise safe and sunny movie. Besides that, if you’ve seen any body swap movie from the past (and the 1980s were littered with body swap movies) then you’ll know exactly how everything will turn out with 17 Again. The movie is mostly silly, mostly the fun kind, but it doesn’t dip into being outrightly dumb. It’s derivative but it’s not fluff. I mean the essential premise revolves around a man regretting supporting his pregnant teen girlfriend/eventual wife. You won’t find that in the Hannah Montana Movie no matter how hard you try, perverts.
17 Again isn’t great art but it works as a showcase for its appealing star, the dewy-eyed, shaggy-coifed Efron. The filmmakers clearly know their target audience because Efron is shirtless and sweaty by minute one, displaying killer abs. By minute four, he’s dancing before his big basketball game (does this kid have a clause in his contract that he must play basketball in all his movies?). 17 Again asks little of Efron and he easily delivers on that mandate with a convincing performance that easily charms. He’s also adept at comic timing, particularly when he’s sparring with Lennon. Efron has a fabulous toothy grin and he’s a good-looking pup, but the jury’s still out on whether or not this kid can go the distance. He’s improved considerably since the first High School Musical launched his mug onto thousands of household products. He probably doesn’t have an Oscar in his future but he certainly will be headlining movies for years to come. He’s more movie star than actor, but let’s not mince words, the kid is a star (fun fact: Efron’s first acting credit is for an episode of Joss Whedon’s Firefly).
The supporting cast surrounding Efron greatly add to the film’s surprise enjoyment. The subplot involving adult dweeb Ned romancing the principal (Melora Hardin) is an amusing diversion that manages to make me like all of the characters more. Lennon (Reno 911!) steals every moment he’s onscreen and develops a kooky chemistry with Hardin (TV’s The Office). The more these two actors interacted the more I wanted the movie to ditch everyone else. Mann gets the thankless job as “upset wife” but brings a spark to the character without coming across as grating. Trachtenberg (Euro Trip, TV’s Gossip Girl) is actually 23 years old but her youthful looks seem to lock her into teenage girl roles. Look out for cameos by comedians like Jim Gaffigan and Margaret Cho. Perry must have enjoyed working for about a week and cashing his check. Also, Perry looks absolutely nothing like Efron and appears to be over a foot taller than his younger, more genetically blessed doppelganger.
I feel sympathy for the editor of 17 Again, because clearly script supervisor Steve Gehrke must have been asleep for the entire film shoot. There are continuity gaps galore in this movie. Now, normally I don’t care so much about mild continuity errors in a movie because that’s just part of moviemaking. So if a character sits up in bed and the sheets are a few inches lower, or in a different ruffled state, well who cares? But when errors compile wildly and become flagrant distractions, then the movie has a problem and the script supervisor, the person in charge of catching those errors in progress, failed miserably. When teen Mike eats a hamburger in the school cafeteria it goes from being in his hands, out of his hands, having a bite out of it, and then magically reformed. Even worse is a moment when teen Mike is nursing a battle wound and his wedding ring keeps changing hands. Why would anyone even bother switching hands for a ring to begin with? That sounds like an easily avoidable hassle. To be fair, there are several factual errors that are not Gehrke’s total fault, though I’m dumfounded why no one else caught these. In 1989, the coach yells at Mike to quite dancing and refers to him as “Vanilla Ice,” but Vanilla Ice didn’t release his debut album until 1990 (apparently the coach knows his underground white hip-hop). What’s even more puzzling is that this pop culture reference is destined to sail over the heads of Efron’s target tween audience. All of this is easily verifiable. I won’t even get into Mike referring to “hippogriffs” 10 years before Harry Potter was published.
17 Again is a pleasant enough confection that is undemanding and yields some laughs and enough heart. The movie manages to be more mature than expected thanks to some kinky-for-PG-13 sexual tension and yet the movie is a harmless good time at the movies. Efron carries the movie ably but he’s got a great supporting cast to help carry the comedy load. Body swap movies are all invariably the same, and truly 17 Again must have been born with the sentence, “It’s reverse-Big.” It’s playful and light and cheery and pretty much an adept project for its star. It’s a small step in the right direction for Efron, and perhaps his fan base will start including more than squealing teenager girls primed to swoon at a moment’s notice. Swooning: it’s not just for the youngsters any more.
Nate’s Grade: B