This is difficult for me to confess, but I'm starting to like Zac Efron ... although not in a crushworthy way, because at my age, that would be creepy. High School Musical 3 was not my thing, and he didn't make an impression on me in Hairspray, but I thought he was wonderfully energetic and fun in Me and Orson Welles when I saw Richard Linklater's film at SXSW last month. And now Efron is starring in 17 Again, a run-of-the-mill family comedy that would be tiresome if not for Efron and a few of the other cast members. Together, these actors kept me from digging through my purse continually for my phone so I could see how many minutes were left in the movie.
17 Again drags out every cliche from body-changing movies -- if you don't know them, check out Christopher Campbell's hilariously accurate list on SpoutBlog -- and unfortunately, doesn't try anything new or suspenseful. In this particular variation, Mike (Matthew Perry) is still reliving his high-school days, when he was the BMOC and a basketball star and everything was perfect, until he made a choice that has landed him with a dead-end job, two kids in high school who practically ignore him, and a wife (Leslie Mann) who's divorcing him because she's justifiably tired of his eternal whininess. So he wishes he were his teenage self again, and does so in front of a Clarence-esque janitor (Brian Doyle-Murray) -- and whammo! He's 17, but everyone else stayed the same age. Now he can go back to high school and help his kids and shoot lots of hoops and make it all better.
The movie was written by Jason Filardi, who also wrote Bringing Down the House (yes, the one with Steve Martin and Queen Latifah). I was disappointed in the director, Burr Steers, since his previous film was Igby Goes Down, a favorite of mine. The teens in this movie lead much duller lives. In fact, they're remarkably squeaky-clean -- I cannot imagine a house party thrown when parents aren't home that does not include any alcohol, drugs, or sex, but perhaps I've led a sordid life. As a grownup in a teen's body, Mike appears to be immune to teen hormones or desires, and his friend won't even let him drink a beer because he's "underage" -- instead, he lectures kids about abstinence and respecting themselves, and apart from one amusing scene with a bully in a cafeteria, is generally the dullest of squares.
Fortunately, Efron manages to carry off the annoying grown-up persona with natural charm, energy, and an unwillingness to try to resemble Matthew Perry. He's helped by Leslie Mann as his grown-up wife Scarlett, who takes what might have been a Standard Wife role and injects a weirdly flaky humor that reminded me of Madeline Kahn. In fact, I think Mann needs to get more Kahn-like comedy roles; if she's going to play shrewish like she did in Knocked Up, let her go completely over the top. Mann and Melora Hardin (The Office), who played the high-school principal, were some of the high points of the film. Would someone please write a smart comedy movie for these actresses?
Thomas Lennon, as Mike's uber-nerdy best friend Ned, was unfortunately stuck in a role that reminded me of the completely gross sandwich Mike the teen makes in one scene: Nutella and mayo and Cheetos and other unspeakable junk-food garnishes. Mike's such a huge Star Wars fan that his bed is a land speeder, and he's also a Tolkien geek, and a role-playing game freak, and a giant fan of anything possibly related to sci-fi and fantasy. Just one of those extra-cheesy ingredients would be sufficient ... but the filmmakers want to milk every laugh possible out of Mike's rich-nerd lifestyle, and in the process leave us feeling somewhat overwhelmed and underamused. I did like the use of light sabers when Mike reveals to Ned that he's a teen again, and the Tolkien dinner-date scene was hilarious (I'm enough of a geek to wonder which of Tolkien's elvish languages they were using, if any), but less would have been more overall.
17 Again is too careful of its need to be a wholesome family film with a moral -- I'm not sure how it even managed a PG-13 rating, except maybe for that one implication of sex at the very very end. It trods the same tired, well-worn path as other comedies in the same genre, takes no risks, brings nothing new. As a result, it feels longer than its 102-minute running time. On the other hand, if you survive the eye-rolling cliches, the movie may make a Zac Efron fan out of you ... it's up to you to decide if that's a good thing. I think so.