Dir. Burr Steers. US. 2009. 102 mins
Let’s assume loyal Zac Efron fans will provide the core audience for 17 Again. The surprise factor is that the film has just enough charm and good humour in its own right to broaden that demographic to a wider, recession-hit audience in search of undemanding, feel-good fun. It may not be in the big league, but healthy global returns should help to confirm Efron as a box-office draw with an appeal that resonates beyond the High School Musical franchise.
Jason Filardi’s canny script doesn’t have an original idea in its head. Instead, it offers a patchwork quilt of tried-and-tested body swap/life lessons templates from It’s A Wonderful Life to Freaky Friday,13 Going On 30 and beyond. It works because of Efron’s sheer likeability, a strong supporting ensemble and direction by Burr Steers (Igby Goes Down) that has the pace and confidence to sweep aside the many reservations about a story which requires a substantial suspension of disbelief.
The tale begins in 1989 when Mike O’Donnell (Efron) is the star basketball player at Hayden High School. His talents even include joining the cheerleaders for a pre-match dance routine. His future is boundless and rosy until girlfriend Scarlet (Allison Miller) announces that she is pregnant. Dreams of college are sacrificed to the reality of their situation although why he can’t be a student and a parent is one of the screenplay’s many unanswered questions. Twenty years later, Mike (Matthew Perry) is an embittered loser on the brink of divorce from Scarlet (Leslie Mann) and a virtual stranger to his teenage children Maggie (Michelle Trachtenberg) and Alex (Sterling Knight). Passed over for promotion, a despondent Mike takes a sentimental journey to his old high school and meets an elderly janitor. After tumbling into a rainswept river, he emerges as an athletic teenager once more with the chance to relive the past and address his regrets.
17 Again coasts along on the familiarity of a premise that is exploited for easy laughs and tear-jerking sentiment. Heading back to high school, Mike discovers that his daughter is dating the bad boy bully who has been making life hell for his gauche son. A good deal of the film’s charm comes from the way the concerns of an outraged parent are given voice by a teenage hottie and from the creepily inappropriate romantic feelings that start to develop between the teenage Mike and the grown-up Scarlet (reminiscent here of Big).
Efron has the clean-cut good looks of a young Tom Cruise and the good guy appeal of Michael J Fox at the time of the Back To The Future series. His shirtless scenes will please fans and although the role of Mike makes few demands on him, he handles some of the hearttugging monologues with enough sincerity to suggest he has the talent to develop into a strong all-rounder.
In its favour, 17 Again isn’t just a carefully calculated star vehicle. Efron is surrounded by engaging talents with Leslie Mann effectively conveying the emotional confusion of the older Scarlet and Thomas Lennon providing wry comic relief as Mike’s nerdy best pal Ned, a Star Wars fan who finds true love by whispering sweet nothings to the school principal in the elf language from Lord Of The Rings.
North American distribution
New Line International