For the past few years, Zac Efron has made a fairly good living by way of his dazzling smile, mediocre voice, and undeniable talent for shaking what his momma gave him. Certainly, teen girls do go wild when this dreamboat bats those long, curly lashes and flashes the six-pack abs, but that’s not enough for him. To shed his wholesome High School Musical reputation, Efron, to his credit, has bypassed the “leaked personal photos” shortcut that his female costars have favored. However, parents should be strongly cautioned that 17 Again carries a hard PG-13 rating for mild language, strong sexuality, borderline incest, and underage drinking. Director Burr Steers (Igby Goes Down) and screenwriter Jason Filardi (Bringing Down the House) attempt to staple 17 Again together as a playful remix of such semi-celebrated fare as Big, It’s a Wonderful Life, 18 Again!, and Freaky Friday, but the final product lands at half-mast in rough and non-navigable waters. The filmmakers have failed to smoothly guide Efron’s transitory star vehicle that would, ideally, set their boy wonder up for a more mature audience in the future. Unfortunately, the markedly risque material of 17 Again results in a visibly uncomfortable Efron, who has yet to remove that halo from his perfectly coiffed head. The onscreen result is quite disorienting, and, despite Efron’s obvious charisma, his acting range leaves much to be desired. Quite simply, one is left with the impression of a cherub that walks into an orgy but is unable to participate, run like hell, or do anything but awkwardly gesticulate. Not that the shortcomings of this film or its star will be noticed by Efron’s fanbase, however, for they’ll be too busy swooning to care about trivial things such as acting.
The film opens in 1989 to a chorus of audience catcalls at the mere sight of a shirtless, sweaty, high-school senior, Mike O’Donnell (Efron), who is about to lead his basketball team to victory in front of college athletic recruiters. At this very moment, Mike’s future is so fucking bright that he joins the cheerleading squad in an impromptu courtside dance (all-to-familiar territory for Efron). Then, the girlfriend, Scarlet (Allison Miller) shows up, drops the pregnancy bomb, and urges Mike not to give up his dreams for her. Naturally, a white man can’t possibly jump after news like this, so Mike leaves the court, runs after Scarlet, and proposes marriage. Twenty years later, he wakes up looking like Matthew Perry.
Alcohol, apparently, is one hell of a drug.
At 37 years of age, Mike (appearing quite rough as Perry) has grown into a very bitter individual. For starters, he missed out on college and, ironically, spent his life pimping erectile dysfunction drugs. On the home front, things aren’t so great either. Mike’s two teenage children, Maggie (Michelle Trachtenberg) and Alex (Sterling Knight), treat their father like a distant relative that shows up at holiday dinners and says all sorts of inappropriate things while downing a cooler full of beer. Meanwhile, Scarlet (now played by Leslie Mann), after dealing with enough of her husband’s crap and feeling responsible for his “failed” life, has filed for divorce and started dating other douchebags. Of course, we’re not exactly sure why, after 20 years together, Mike and Scarlet are seeking a divorce because, clearly, they still seem to love each other a lot, but, obviously, consistency isn’t one of this film’s main attractions.
Poor Mike doesn’t know what happened to his once-promising existence, but he’s a few mere millimeters away from becoming one of those late 30-something cynics, saddled with two child support payments, who frequent those awful online dating sites filled with 75 percent guys, 20 percent hot sexy chat bots, and 5 percent actual women. Fortunately, high-school buddy Ned (Thomas Lennon, who saves the film from total unfunniness), who is now a billionaire and living the ultimate geekboy existence by doing nothing at all, takes Mike into his home. Ned’s presence livens up the movie enough for the audience to stay awake long enough for Zac Efron to return to the screen. To that end, Brian Doyle-Murray (brother of Bill) plays a Wizard/Janitor, who takes pity on Matthew Perry and allows him to become Zac Efron once again. Thus, Mike gets a chance to redo his life.
With the benefit of hindsight, Mike is a sensitive guy. Instead of merely reliving his glorious youth, he decides that it’s his personal mission to attend high school with his children and help them along in that awkward phase referred to as “normal adolescence.” So, Mike fashions himself as Uncle Ned’s bastard child and is shocked to find out the truth: (1) Alex is a total wimp; (2) Maggie spends most of her school day getting tongue-bathed by a bully named Stan (Hunter Parrish). Mike is not only disappointed but feels he may have contributed to all of this, so he articulates his regrets by preaching celibacy in the middle of sex-ed class (taught by an amazingly docile Margaret Cho). As expected, Maggie ends up crushing on her father, and, in a scene that’s at least ten times as creepy as Lea Thompson hitting on Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future, Mike is chased around a bedroom by Maggie, who, for some unknown reason, is roaring and growling like a lioness. As if this isn’t skeevy enough, Mike also tries to romance his soon-to-be ex-wife; for her part, Scarlet assumes Mike is merely a cougar-chasing cub but is startled at his resemblance to her husband. Much presumed hilarity ensues.
The talented Leslie Mann does her best to make us believe that Efron and Perry inhabit the same character, but, in the end, it’s just not in the script or in the actors themselves. Even in a film containing swirling vortexes and transference spells, there’s just nothing that can convince us that two actors, who look nothing alike and are of limited range, can pull off such a trick of wizardry. Walking out of the theater, you’ll leave feeling rather disgusted that the potential for a slightly amusing PG-13 film went so wrong. Further, you’ll feel shameful and dirty, and not in a good way either. If Efron wants to move on to more mature roles, he’d do well to work with a solid script and a director who can provide much firmer guidance. Still, that dazzling smile will ensure the ticket sales needed to help ruin several other subsequent films. The future is dim.
Agent Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma and can be found at agentbedhead.com.