Fish-out-of-water premises—body swapping, time travel, cross-dressing—may be a dime a dozen, but when you plug in the hot up-and-comer du jour, it’s like the cinematic equivalent of a duplicate bridge tournament. When everyone’s playing basically the same cards, you find out who’s really got game.
And the results over the years have been decidedly mixed. Michael J. Fox (Back to the Future), Tom Hanks (Big) and Lindsay Lohan (Freaky Friday remake) are among those who scored hits. On the other hand, Charlie Schlatter cavorted as a teen George Burns in 1988’s 18 Again!, and basically disappeared into workmanlike obscurity. Now it’s High School Musical star Zac Efron’s turn, and 17 Again sort of works.
This 30th-verse-same-as-the-first variation opens in 1989, where high-school basketball stud Mike O’Donnell (Efron) is looking at a college scholarship—except that he opts to do “the right thing” and marry his girlfriend Scarlett when she gets pregnant. Twenty years later, Mike (Matthew Perry) is a defeated pharmaceutical salesman, and Scarlett (Leslie Mann) is tired of feeling like the scapegoat. Facing divorce and unemployment, Mike encounters a mysterious janitor (Brian Doyle Murray) and suddenly finds himself transformed back to his 17-year-old self.
Screenwriter Jason Filardi (Bringing Down the House) and director Burr Steers (Igby Goes Down) fill the story with all the requisite elements. There’s the one person who knows the truth—in this case, Mike’s nerd-turned-software millionaire best friend Ned (Reno 911!’s Thomas Lennon)—to act as our protagonist’s confidant. There’s a jerk adversary—bullying jock Stan (Hunter Parrish)—to provide external conflict. And there are plenty of moments for awkward reaction takes. Most of these elements are pretty perfunctory.
What they didn’t count on is Lennon. He’s hilarious as a one-time loser who has succeeded to the point where he can fill his house with nerd-arobilia like life-sized Darth Vaders, but still has no idea how to get a date. A subplot involving Ned’s flailing attempts to woo the high-school principal serve up nearly all of the film’s biggest laughs, and Lennon’s deadpan delivery steals absolutely every scene he’s in. At a certain point, it begins to seem like a much better movie would have abandoned Efron’s character entirely.
Efron occasionally nails Perry’s mannerisms. But the fact is that it’s generally much harder to make the teen-playing-grownup side of this concept work. You need a bit of soul beyond your years to pull off the weary wisdom of a guy flipped from mid-life crisis to big man on campus. When Efron attempts a tearful monologue expressing Mike’s love for his wife, he just seems like a kid play-acting at understanding those emotions. The scene shows Efron’s limitations, as well as those of this repackaged setup.
17 Again opens at the Carmike 10 Friday, April 17.