Whatever snarky things I’ve said about Zac Efron, I take back. He proves himself to be a far better actor than his High School Musical days suggest and ends up elevating the traditional body switch film 17 Again beyond its genre clichés. The film plays it safe with plot and humor, but Efron shines as Mike (played as an adult by Matthew Perry), a dissatisfied man who at 37 years, finds his career has stalled, his two teenage kids don’t much care for him, and his wife eagerly awaiting their divorce.
At the root of his simmering inadequacy is a decision he made as a high school senior to marry his pregnant girlfriend and abandon his plans for a college education and basketball career. Mike revisits his school and chats with a mysterious janitor (Brian Doyle-Murray) before falling into a watery vortex later that night. He awakes in his 17 year old body and sees an opportunity to reset his life.
The particulars of how he might rectify his past are largely ignored; this movie doesn’t involve time travel and he can’t go back and change the decisions he regrets making. But he quickly finds himself in a position to mend the relationships he already has and tries to do so by enrolling in school and befriending his own kids. Here is where Efron digs from some unknown wells of experience to show a father fiercely protective of his children and a husband still madly in love with his wife. He brings a steady balance as a young twentysomething playing an adult playing a teen.
The scenes between his character and Ned (Thomas Lennon), Mike’s best friend, are amusing but simplistic. Ned, a Star Wars-obsessed nerd who was bullied as a kid and is now filthy rich, pretends to be Mike’s father and ends up comically pursuing the school principal. The actor stretches himself though when his character tries to parent his children without giving away his identity. Shocked to see his daughter Maggie (Michelle Trachtenberg) dating a royal douche, Mike earnestly expounds on the manifold benefits of abstinence during a sex ed class, taught by Margaret Cho. At the same time, he tries to rescue Alex (a memorable Sterling Knight) from school bullies by asserting some of the same swagger he had as a high school basketball star, now reinforced by the attitude of an adult who’s getting too old for this crap. Efron manages to capture Mike’s regret and desperation and especially his deep sense of love and pride in short, knowing glances. The filmmakers also poke fun at the actor’s heartthrob image and set up Mike to leverage his Zac Efron-like good looks in order to better ingratiate himself into the teenage scene.
The film handles Mike’s damaged relationship with his wife Scarlet (Leslie Mann) with much sensitivity as well. She is surprised to say the least when Alex brings home a new friend who looks just like her husband as a teen, and this leads to what should be a highly inappropriate attraction. The interactions between the two are awkward and at times uncomfortable, but they are also grounded in deep affection and approached with light humor. On one occasion, Mike tries, and fails, to moderate his reaction to Scarlet’s new date. He also inserts himself into a cozy three-way hug when Alex makes the basketball team.
These are easy, almost lazy laughs that rely too much on overstepping boundaries, but if they don’t seem fresh they at least seem satisfying and earned. Mann has made a good living off playing similarly frustrated wives, and her pairing with a younger actor gives that role an edgier dynamic. She and Efron make a surprisingly compatible pair, both registering sparks of recognition and young love when they come face to face. It’s a romance that won’t hook everyone but one worth giving a try.
Prod: Adam Shankman, Jennifer Gibgot
Dir: Burr Steers
Writer: Jason Filardi
Cast: Zac Efron, Matthew Perry, Leslie Mann, Sterling Knight, Thomas Lennon, Michelle Trachtenberg, Hunter Parrish, Katrina Graham, Melora Hardin, Jim Gaffigan, Brian Doyle-Murray, Margaret Cho
Time: 105 min
Country: United States