17 Again

Reviewed By Mel Valentin
Posted 04/17/09 05:23:49

"Tween girls of the world, rejoice! Everyone else, not so much."
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

"17 Again", the first film to feature tween idol Zac Efron outside of the "High School Musical" franchise that made him and his co-stars, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Tisdale, and Corbin Bleu household names (at least in those households carrying the Disney Channel and, at minimum, one tween girl), is a slight comedy, equal (or rather unequal) parts "Big" (in reverse), "Back to the Future," "Freaky Friday," and "It’s a Wonderful Life." As directed by Burr Steers ("Igby Goes Down") and written by Jason Filardi ("Drum," "Bringing Down the House"), "17 Again" is as safe as Hollywood product (and it is product) gets. "17 Again" is mostly inoffensive and easily forgettable, evanescent entertainment for the tween masses (and no one else).

17 Again opens in 1989, the better to highlight a shirtless, sweaty Mike O' Donnell (Zac Efron), Hayden High School’s star point guard, as he takes a few practice shots before the big game (they’re all big in standard-issue Hollywood sports-focused comedies) against a rival high school (all other high schools fall under the “rival” tag). With a big-time college scout at the game, O’Donnell is understandably nervous. His nervousness disappears as soon as his girlfriend, Scarlett (Allison Miller), informs him that she’s pregnant. O’Donnell accepts responsibility, marries Scarlett, and foregoes the college basketball scholarship, presumably for wedded bliss and fatherhood at 18.

17 Again then jumps forward 20 years to the hapless, harried adult O’Donnell (Matthew Perry). Passed over for a promotion at work, O’Donnell’s personal life isn’t any better: he’s living with his high school best friend, the all-things-geek obsessed Ned Gold (Thomas Lennon), on the verge of divorce to his wife, Scarlett (Leslie Mann), and estranged from his teenage children, Alex (Sterling Knight), and Maggie O'Donnell (Michelle Trachtenberg). Bitter and regretful, O’Donnell visits his old high school where he encounters an old janitor (Brian Doyle-Murray), who grants him his wish to become “17 Again” (hence the inspired title), but only after O’Donnell proves himself worthy by helping someone in apparent need.

For all but the last, inevitable, inevitably predictable scene, Efron takes over the O’Donnell role. Now the same physical age a his children, O’Donnell enrolls in high school under the name “Mark Gold” (with Ned stepping in as surrogate father), where he promptly becomes the coolest kid in high school, effortlessly joins the basketball team, befriends Alex and encourages him to become more self-confident and try out for the basketball team, keeps his eye on the wayward Maggie, and befriends Scarlett, who can’t get over his resemblance to the younger Mike.

What follows are typically generic plot turns, with life lessons gained and learned all around, and several uncomfortable moments as the teenage Mike lets his true feelings toward the adult Scarlett slip through while, eventually, predictably turning Maggie’s unsolicited attention elsewhere (creating minor amounts of frisson). Yes, we’ve seen 17 Again, or at least most of its major plot points before, but 17 Again’s familiarity (and the contempt it might generate in older moviegoers) is exactly what tween girls and tween gay men will appreciate about it: the low-stress storytelling will give them all the more time to focus their attention on Efron.

Efron may be the prettiest male actor under 25 to hit the big- or small-screens. Efron’s perfectly tousled hair, blue eyes, screen presence, and abs that will make tween girls (and some women and/or gay men) squeal in delight whenever he’s on screen. They’ll miss or, more likely won’t pay much attention to the basically conservative message at the center of "17 Again": Mike helps his son become part of the high school elite, while helping to save his daughter’s virginity from an unworthy high-school jock, learning a few life lessons along the way, and redeeming himself sufficiently to regain his soon-to-be-ex-wife’s love (after years of openly expressed regret at foregoing college basketball for bland, suffocating domesticity).

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