Efron - surprise! - plays nice in '17 Again'
I worry about Zac Efron. Really, I do. I can tell that deep in his heart the teen superstar wants to be a bad boy - to litter, maybe, or park in a handicapped spot and to hell with the consequences. Even if he did, though, no one would believe him. He's just too nice. This isn't a movie star, it's a prom date.
Thing is, he's a great prom date; when Efron shows up in the very first shot of "17 Again" shirtless and sweaty on a basketball court, the screening audience I was with pawed the ground in communal ecstasy. The movie ladles him out like chum for young teenage girls (and their sisters, mothers, and grandmothers), and if Efron gives a likable performance in the bargain, that's gravy.
The movie itself is petrified meatloaf. It's a body-transference comedy in the vein of "Big," "Freaky Friday," and other candidates for Turner Classics. After that opening sequence, in which 1989 high school stud Mike O'Donnell (Efron) blows the big game to be with pregnant girlfriend Scarlett (Allison Miller), we cut to the present. Mike is now played by Matthew Perry, and it ain't pretty. Warning to parents: "17 Again" considers 37 a prime age for being pushed out onto the ice floe.
Scarlett is now played by - hooray - Leslie Mann, the tart, helium-voiced savior of Judd Apatow comedies (she's Mrs. Apatow, too). The couple's children are surly Maggie (Michelle Trachtenberg) and punching bag Alex (Sterling Knight). Everyone hates Mike, and why not? He's angry his life didn't pan out and he looks like a Friend with a career hangover. Cue the otherworldly janitor (Brian Doyle Murray), a bridge scene that rips off "It's a Wonderful Life" and - whammo - Matthew Perry is Zac Efron again. Movie saved.
The gist is that young Mike has to rescue his failing marriage by hanging out with his own kids and cozying up to his now-older wife. "17 Again" thus plays up the cougar comedy (that's the polite word for it), and Mann is such a sweetie-pie farceur that the movie actually threatens to get weirdly hot. The bit where Mike's daughter turns her sights on him is just weird, though. "Back to the Future" made this sort of incestuous envelope-pushing work, but that movie starred Michael J. Fox. Zac Efron, sir, is no Michael J. Fox.
He is pleasant, though; gets some nice top-spin on his dialogue, dances a bit, plays well with others. Efron's not without talent but he is without the presence - the mysterious charismatic heft - required of an actual movie star. On the other hand, being very, very pretty and very, very polite worked for Troy Donahue and Bobby Sherman. (Girls, ask your elders.)
And "17 Again" mostly avoids becoming "High School Musical 4: Middle Age Dread" by surrounding its star with fleet-footed supporting players. In addition to Mann, there's Thomas Lennon as Mike's best friend from childhood, a walking collection of sci-fi/fantasy-geek cliches made bearable by the prop department and the actor's deadpan enthusiasm. Lennon has to pretend to be young-again Mike's dad, which brings him into contact with the school principal played by Melora Hardin ("The Office"), who does good comic distress until the script asks her to turn silly.
Even comedian Margaret Cho shows up as a high school health instructor, tossing out condoms with merry abandon. That right there should clue parents into the fact that we're not in G-rated Kansas anymore, Sharpay. The director is Burr Steers, who long ago (OK, 2002) made a film called "Igby Goes Down" that's a beautifully written, expertly played story of bitter teen confusion. Echoes of that skill can be seen here.
Still, "17 Again" is product, loaded with high fructose corn syrup so the girls will like it (and they will) and as meaningful as an afternoon at the mall. The movie's most radical notion is that Zac Efron could convince a class of high school seniors, played by actors in their mid-20s, to throw away their condoms and take an abstinence pledge.
See what I mean? Nice.