In Theaters: 17 Again
There are those who'd dismiss 17 Again for its shopworn premise -- and it would be hard to argue with them -- but when it comes to an old-fashioned age-swap movie, we're always game. Whether it's about a kid moving clumsily in a jaded adult world (Big, 13 Going on Thirty), a parent and child experiencing each other's life for one terrifying day (Freaky Friday, Like Father, Like Son), or just a satisfying high school do-over story (18 Again, Peggy Sue Got Married), the hokey premise seems to produce an inordinate amount of charmingly memorable films.
17 Again is not one of them.
So as not to disorient Zac Efron's hormonal core fanbase, we begin on the familiar terrain of a high school basketball court, where Mike O'Donnell (Efron), the most popular guy in school, sinks shots from the foul line. Shirtless. (Squeeeeal!!!) It's the day of the big game, and everyone is counting on Mike to bring it home. That includes his best friend, Ned Gold, whom we know is a nerd from his wizard gown and spoken references to Dungeons & Dragons.
Pause for obligatory, choreographed half-court dance sequence with cheerleaders.
Back to the drama: Mike's girlfriend -- "the prettiest girl in the school," he keeps reminding us -- arrives at the gymnasium looking upset. Mike presses her to find out what's wrong. She whispers it into his ear. He's shocked. He stumbles back onto the court, but he's too distracted to play.
20 years pass -- what must have been an incredibly punishing 20 years because Zac Efron has morphed into Matthew Perry. In that time, Mike has become a parent twice over to two teenagers (Michelle Trachtenberg and Sterling Knight), and has found an unsatisfying career as a hacky Hollywood screenplay's version of "grown man with regrets." His wife, played by Leslie Mann -- who appears to have cornered the market on doable, exasperated suburban wife roles -- is in the process of divorcing him. (Any questions as to why are to be fully addressed in a stirring monologue about an unsatisfactorily mounted backyard hammock.) Ned (Thomas Lennon), meanwhile, is still very much in the picture and still very much a nerd, albeit a financially successful one.
At this point, it's become abundantly clear that 17 Again is well beyond salvaging, but you're still holding out some hope that things will pick up after the big presto change-o. The transformation is quick, and unimaginative: A janitor, who wouldn't look out of place on the National Sex Offender Registry, approaches grown Mike as he gazes longingly at a cabinet full of team photos and trophies. Minutes later, Bitter Doughy Mike stumbles off the side of a bridge and into what -- as best as we could make out -- is the fabled Jacuzzi of Youth. Young, Zac-ilicious Mike has returned! But to what exactly?
The comedy in these situations is usually derived from watching adults maneuver the treacherous terrain of adolescence. But Mike is popular, he's gorgeous, he's perfect -- and he's boring. That leaves Efron with nothing to do but chase his kids around school property to make necessary fixes to their personal lives (the girl is a slut, the boy needs lessons in confidence), pausing occasionally to lecture on abstinence and good manners to the student body. Snore! This guy's a drip at any age.
Efron isn't to blame here; the script is. In the scenes in which he romances Mann -- who, having stared at Perry's hangdog maw for the better part of two decades, has ceased to recognize her high school sweetie -- some genuine sparks fly. We would have rather spent the time just watching these two getting it on in a straightforward cougarcom. SCORE: (Out of 10) 4