April 24, 2009

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17 Again (PG-13)
A sad-sack Matthew Perry becomes a newly invigorated Zac Efron in the second-chance comedy 17 Again.

A 17-year-old Mike O’Donnell (Efron) is about to play the basketball game of his young life — a college scout is in the stands and his bright future is just about to take off. His girlfriend, Scarlett (Allison Miller), appears to wish him a good game — except she does it with a strange look on her face. What’s wrong, baby, he says. Baby, indeed. Next thing we know, Mike is walking away from the court to follow Scarlett into the hall, where he proposes and gushingly tells her that she and their child are his bright future.

Years later, Mike (Perry) is bitter and sad, having been pushed out of his house by Scarlett (Leslie Mann), who is sick of hearing him complain about how much better his life would have been if he’d taken that basketball scholarship and gone to college. He’s now living with high school friend Ned (Thomas Lennon), formerly a geek whom Mike protected from the other jocks and now a geek who has made bags of money with software and has a house full of Star Wars memorabilia, medieval weaponry and other geekcessories. Mike’s kids, the 17-year-old Maggie (Michelle Trachtenberg) and the younger, slightly nerdy Alex (Sterling Knight), are now students at his alma mater, but this shared teenage experience hasn’t brought them together — they seem just as disenchanted with their dad as Scarlett is.

It’s in this state that Mike does a little bit of chatting with a mysterious janitor and, after an It’s a Wonderful Life-like jump/fall from a bridge, he awakes the next morning to find himself a changed man. Actually, a changed boy — he’s been returned to his 17-year-old Efron state and decides it’s an opportunity to live his life over again.

Annoyingly wholesome as those High School Musical movies may be, Efron has a solid screen presence. He has a big teen-dream grin but he has enough sense of humor about himself to keep it from becoming unsettling (i.e. Tom Cruise). Since this whole endeavor is played at a sitcom level, Efron seems perfectly matched to the task of mimicking a few Perry/old-man-isms while still being a winning character in his own right. Anything verging on edgy — some scenes that touch on a building crush Maggie has for her teenage dad (who calls himself Mark); the feelings young Mark/Mike has for the older Scarlett, leading to “cougar” jokes — is played for goofiness. Some talk about whether or not Maggie will have sex with her boyfriend, Stan (Hunter Parrish), a lughead who bullies her younger brother, is addressed in the most wholesome way you can address teen sex and Efron does a believable job of expressing middle-aged dad-ness from behind his young man features.

Helping Efron keep the funny moving are Leslie Mann (Mrs. Judd Apatow and a regular in his comedies) and Thomas Lennon, whose weirdness is on display with his attempt to romance the high school’s principal, played by Melora Hardin. This isn’t cutting-edge humor but it is middle-brow comedy done fairly well. C+

Rated PG-13 for language, some sexual material and teen partying. Directed by Burr Steers and written by Jason Filardi, 17 Again is an hour and 42 minutes long and distributed in wide release by Warner Bros