17 AgainReviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 04/17/09 03:40:52
(Worth A Look)
Was anyone expecting a breezy body-swap comedy from the guy who directed “Igby Goes Down”? Was anyone expecting a clever script from the guy who wrote “Bringing Down the House”? Here I was, all set to crack George Burns/Charlie Schlatter jokes, only to discover that “17 Again” is very good, and very charming, and very, very funny. The film has a sweet nature and a clever wit about it, two things it urgently needs to avoid being just another age-switch flick.Perry - who’s been too absent since “Studio 60” flopped; is it wrong of me to admit I’ve missed his snarky attitude? - stars as Mike O’Donnell, who spent his 1980s high school days as the big man on campus but had to skip college after knocking up his girlfriend (played in adult form by Leslie Mann). It all leads to a miserable adulthood, with a crumbling marriage and a terrible job that he finally quits, and oh, how life was much better twenty years ago. The comes the encounter with the magical janitor (Brian Doyle-Murray) which leads Mike into a time warp-y vortex that morphs him into the body of 17-year-old Mike (Efron), although Teen Mike is stuck squarely in the present. With the help of best pal Ned (Thomas Lennon), Teen Mike enrolls in his kids’ high school, at first in hopes of reliving his youth, then to help steer his children through the rough adolescent years and maybe, just maybe, figure out how to save his own marriage.
The smartest thing “17 Again” does is admit, right up front, that it’s retelling an old story. There’s a terrific scene early on that finds Ned - a Bill Gates-y nerd and grade-A sci-fi dork - surrounded by comic books and fantasy novels, trying to figure out which classic story formula relates to Mike’s transformation. The script (from Jason Filardi) wisely owns up to being a reheated tale, then makes fun of itself for it, putting the audience on its side for all the clichéd silliness that follows.
Such clichéd silliness includes: Teen Mike helping his awkward son (Sterling Knight) get on the basketball team and win over the cute cheerleader; Teen Mike struggling to break up his daughter (Michelle Trachtenberg) and her beau, the school bully (Hunter Parrish); Teen Mike trying to avoid getting hit on by all the girls, including his daughter; Teen Mike falling in love all over again with his wife, whom he can’t tell about the body-swap; Ned romancing the school principal (Melora Hardin).
The movie hits all the predictable notes, but it hits them with style. The scene where Teen Mike confronts the bully becomes a sort of Zac Efron demo reel, with the young star smoothly cracking wise while pulling off slick basketball tricks, winning older audiences over while assuring them he’s not just the “High School Musical” kid. Indeed, Efron is flat-out brilliant here, bursting with personality and showing a mastery of comic timing; it’s as if he knew this would be his shot into the big leagues, and he’s swinging for the fences.
Everyone else gets in a few comic doubles and triples, too, like the corny-yet-hilarious bit involving Ned and the principal at a fancy restaurant, or the nightmarish turn where Mike’s daughter suddenly decides she’s in love with this new kid at school, and a few more worth mentioning but not worth spoiling.
And then there is that sweet nature I mentioned. By the time we get to what we think will be just another courtroom finale, we’re rooting hard for these characters, hoping they’ll find their happiness, if not with each other then at least with someone. (The script, by the way, is smart enough to make sure the courtroom scene is not the finale, nor is it overwrought and drippy, despite a key speech. And again: Efron pulls off a terrific performance in this scene, absolutely selling it.) When the final act threatens to mirror similar events in the prologue - a nice touch if done correctly, but a cheap gimmick if done poorly - how surprising it is to find ourselves greatly involved in the outcome.The breezy, bright “17 Again” is a far, far cry from director Burr Steer’s previous effort, the dreary smarm-fest “Igby Goes Down.” Gone is the pretense of that picture and its cloying situations, replaced here with unexpectedly amusing characters and a story that tempts cliché without collapsing into it. This is lightweight fluff of the good kind, cheery and fun, an absolutely wonderful cinematic surprise.
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