** (out of 5)
April 17, 2009
Zac Efron as MIKE O’DONNELL (TEEN)
Leslie Mann as SCARLETT O’DONNELL
Thomas Lennon as NED GOLD
Matthew Perry as MIKE O’DONNELL (ADULT)
Sterling Knight as ALEX O’DONNELL
Michelle Trachtenberg as MAGGIE O’DONNELL
Studio: New Line Cinema
Directed by: Burr Steers
BY KEVIN CARR
Listen to Kevin’s radio review…
And so it begins… Zac Efron takes a step away from the squeaky-clean tween musical and edges towards a grown-up movie career. Sure, “17 Again” isn’t exactly “Observe and Report,” but it does deal with some PG-13 subject matter – like teen pregnancy, teen drinking and other teen shenanigans – that might make the Disney Channel audience a tad nervous.
“17 Again” begins with Efron as high school senior Mike O’Donnell in 1989. These are his glory days. He’s the basketball star, and he is ready for the final game where a college scout is watching him play. However, his life is turned upside-down when his girlfriend tells him that she’s pregnant. Mike tosses the ball away and runs after her, vowing to make her an honest woman and skip college so they can get married.
Fast-forward twenty years. Mike (now Matthew Perry as an adult) is stuck in a dead-end pharmaceutical sales job, his wife Scarlett (Leslie Mann) is filing for divorce and his kids want nothing to do with him. Mike wanders back to his old stomping grounds, wishing for a do-over… and he gets his wish. He’s magically transformed into 17-year-old Zac Efron again. With the help of his adult boyhood friend Ned (Thomas Lennon), Mike has to set things right with his wife and his kids, all the while in disguise as a high school student.
This premise is nothing new. There’s a ton of feature films that have been made about age shifting – from “Freaky Friday” to the less fondly remembered but similarly titled “18 Again!” with George Burns. We haven’t seen this for a while, so it might seem fresh to Efron’s legions of young fans.
So keep in mind that we have a retread plotline with a fresh, young star. Even though I grew up in the 80s when we saw the last glut of these films, I haven’t seen too many of them. But that’s not to say that the story in “17 Again” didn’t feel a bit tired at times.
The movie works at times, but only about half-way, and it does seem a bit half-baked. It’s as if they had the idea and wanted to rush it out before Efron got too old or too edgy to put in a film like this. And with a minor focus issue (on the story, not the cinematography), the movie does tend to drag and lose its direction mid-way through.
In his first starring role outside of the “High School Musical” franchise, Efron holds his own. However, he doesn’t seem 100% comfortable carrying the film. While the kid is the epitome of teen coolness (albeit alarmingly scrawny), he seems a bit reluctant to perform the more self-deprecating humor and play the fool. It’s not that he can’t pull it off… after all, his misdirected K-Fed get-up during his first appearance at high school, came off well. I just got the feeling that after playing pretty boy Troy Bolton in “High School Musical,” he wasn’t quite sure how to go for the sympathy vote.
Still, Efron works better than many teen idols. And through at least half of the film, he does a pretty uncanny Matthew Perry impression. But the strongest parts weren’t his responsibility.
Easily the best part of the film was Thomas Lennon as Matt’s geek culture best friend who pretends to be his father. Lennon, best known for the role of Lieutenant Jim Dangle in “Reno: 911!,” steals every scene he’s in. Here’s someone who knows how to play the socially awkward fall guy for full comedic effect.
But even as funny as Lennon is as the Elvish-speaking, fanboy man-child who practically stalks the pretty principal (played by Melora Hardin), “17 Again” is aiming for too many audiences. Efron’s tween fangirl crowd might be a bit too young to get permission from their parents to see the PG-13 teen comedy. The comedy might be a bit to sanitized for the older raunchy teenage crowd. And as funny as it is to hear the young version of Matt wax poetic to his classmates about abstinence and responsible behavior, the movie just might not be grown-up enough to connect to an adult audience.