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17 Again (2009) Print E-mail
Tuesday, 28 April 2009
ImageI have not seen a single moment of a High School Musical movie.  I haven’t even caught a snippet of dialogue (Actually…is there dialogue in those movies or are they all-singing, all-dancing upbeat teen versions of Evita?  These are things I just don’t know.)   My only first-hand experience with Zac Efron is a well-performed role in Hairspray and a charming turn on Saturday Night Live.   So, unlike some parents of eleven year old girls I know suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after multiple viewings of the HSM trilogy, I went into 17 Again with an open mind.  Despite legitimate concerns about floppy hair, I was curious about the answer to the question the producers of this film were clearly posing to the American public – does Zac Efron have a shot at staging an escape from the teenybopper ghetto and growing up to be a bona fide movie star?

Before I answer that question, let’s examine the vehicle.  If your thing when you go to the movies is innovative cutting edge storytelling or in depth examinations of the human psyche, why are you even reading a review of 17 Again?  This is a film about a 37 year old guy who is unhappy with his life so a magical janitor turns him back into a 17 year old so he can relive the glory days of high school.  If you buy a ticket for that, and aren’t expecting 103 minutes of formula, I don’t know what to tell you.  Formulaic films may not add anything to the cinematic language, but they can entertain when done well.  Every romantic comedy is a simple formula – boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back.  It is not whether the couple will find each other in the end but how, that keeps us interested.  Fill a predictable, paint by numbers plot with well-rounded engaging characters and fresh screenwriting that provides warm comedy and little surprises along the way, and the audience will walk out smiling.  Sometimes you don’t need more than a little escapism on a Saturday night.  Happily, 17 Again provides just that.

The basic plot: The year is 1989 and Mike O’Donnell (Zac Efron) is a high school basketball stud getting ready for the big game.  College scouts are in the crowd and tonight is his ticket to the big show.  The girlfriend Mike loves dearly chooses the moment right before the starting buzzer to inform him she is in the family way.  As a side note, who does that?  She couldn’t have waited until after the final buzzer?  Torn between what he sees as two futures, Mike drops the ball, literally, walks off the court and kisses the girl. 

Fast-forward twenty years.   Mike O’Donnell (Matthew Perry) is miserable.  He hates his job, is disconnected from his kids and blames his soon to be ex-wife (a pitch-perfect Leslie Mann) for his NBA-less lot in life.  He’s living with his best friend, Ned Gold (Thomas Lennon) who provides a great deal of comedy as the ultimate wealthy software designer / fanboy whose home is a shrine to all things geek and pursues the high school principal (The Office’s Melora Hardin) in an endless parade of outrageous outfits (he is, he claims, “peacocking”).  Mike goes back to his high school to gaze into the picture of himself in the trophy case and dream of what might have been.  Enter the aforementioned magical janitor (Brian Doyle Murray) who is clearly an homage to the angel Clarence in It’s A Wonderful Life.  Mike gets his wish to be, well, 17 Again, and Zac Efron re-enters, bringing us back to the question on the table.

How will the young moppet do now that he’s officially in the driver’s seat?  He has to channel Chandler, so to speak, embody an adult in a teenager’s body, believably re-connect with his kids (Michelle Trachtenberg and Sterling Knight) and carefully balance charisma and creepiness while re-wooing his 37 year old wife.  He has the help of a solid supporting cast, but it is up to Zac to carry the film.  The question is answered.  He does so with aplomb.  This kid has charm coming out one ear and comic timing the other.  You believe he is a young Matthew Perry because although they don’t really resemble each other at all, they are both particularly adept at this brand of comedy (Think more Chandler – they don’t actually give him that much to do in this movie).   Zac Efron is fun to watch as is the entire movie.  It doesn’t take itself seriously, winking more than once at itself and the films upon whose shoulders it stands.  Director Burr Steers has given us much more a yummy piece of candy than a five star meal, but if you’re looking for a tasty dessert with a side of movie star in the making, go see 17 Again.

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