17 Again (2009): Will Zac Efron Become Major Hollywood Star?

If 17 Again, the innocuously charming comedy, is popular at the box office, it may become a turning point for heartthrob Zac Efron, who gives a career-making performance on his way to major Hollywood stardom.

Narratively, the movie is slight and schematic, borrowing elements from such fantasy fables as Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” with Jimmy Stewart,” “Big,” starring Tom Hanks, the “Back to the Future” franchise with Michael J. Fox, and Coppola’s “Peggy Sue Got Married” with Kathleen Turner, all far superior movies.  Nonetheless, though lacking genuine artistic merits, “17 Again” is a feel-good picture, which mostly earns its laughs and occasionally delivers some poignant points about the psyche and soul of the American male, both as a youngster and as adult.

Like “Back to the Future,” the yarn, penned by Jason Filardi, is based on a universal wish we all share: Having a chance to go back to our past and “correct” things we didn’t do “right” the first time around.  Specifically, in “17 Again,” the key question is, What would you do if you got a second shot at life and could go back to high school?

The movie introduces Mike O’Donnell (Zac Efron), class of 1989, as a star on the high school basketball court, with a college coach watching him carefully, and a bright future within reach. Handsome, popular, and the hero of his school team, Mike is about to take the court for the big game, the one that will make or break his career. But at that crucial moment, his girlfriend Scarlet (Allison Miller) breaks the news that she is pregnant. Forced to make a pivotal decision quickly, Mike gives up the game, and a sure college scholarship, in order to be with Scarlet. Instead of pursuing a desirable future, Mike decides to “throw” it away so that he can share his life with his Scarlet and their baby.

Cut to 20 years later (the present), and Mike, now played by Matthew Perry, as a bitter middle-aged man who feels that his glory days are decidedly behind him. His marriage to Scarlet (played as an adult by Leslie Mann) has fallen apart, and they are engaged in a nasty divorce and custody battle over two teenage kids (both social misfits) he barely knows.

Mike’s once-bright future has been overshadowed by a dead-end office job.  At work, he gets publicly humiliated, when after decades of service, he is passed over for a promotion and the eagerly-awaited job goes to a much younger fella, the firm’s bright new star.

No wonder Scarlet, their two children, and everybody else perceive Mike as a loser, one of those men who has been betrayed by the American Dream, having experienced downward (in lieu of upward) mobility.  At present, waiting for his divorce to get final, Mike crashes on the sofa of his high school best friend Ned (Thomas Lennon), a nerd (if there ever was one), who miraculously has become a techno genius-billionaire.  But more than anything else, Ned functions as a comic foil to Mike’s straight man, an eccentric with a penchant for outrageous costumes and courtship patterns to match.

After a chance encounter with a mysterious old man (Brian Doyle Murray), who seems to know exactly how he is feeling, Mike is given a miraculous gift. The next time he looks in the mirror, he discovers he has been magically transformed back to the age of 17, at least outwardly. Inwardly, Mike is still 37 and remembers exactly who, where, and how old he actually is. Incredulity soon gives way to joy and renewed optimism, when Mike realizes he has been given a second shot at the life he thought he threw away.

In ways that can’t be disclosed here, Mikes miraculously transformed back to late adolescence.  The central gimmick is that Mike looks 17, but his outlook on sex, women, family, wife and child-raising reflect the outlook of a late 30s man.  Thus, in one of the film’s more charming scenes, Mike comes across as a retro, or uncool, when he gives his peers in schools a lesson about the merits of abstinence from the sex until they marry the love of their lives.

The picture’s main problem is that it takes no risks and wants to play it both ways. In trying to recapture Mike’s best years, there is almost no price to be paid or sacrifice to be made.  It’s also never convincing when Mike feels he might lose some of the best and most precious things that have ever happened to him.

In its more serio moments, “17 Again” is an uplifting message movie, dealing with life choices and the consequences, both the good and the bad ones, we go through for having made them in the first place.  I don’t know how long the picture has been in the works, but it fits the new zeitgeist: Like other men, Mike needs to learn to be more humble, modest, and grateful for what he has already accomplished—not to aspire higher in any significant way.

Casting is a crucial factor in the picture, and the yarn seems tailor-made to the specific talents of Zac Efron, who up until now either played major roles in ensemble-driven movies (Disney’s “High School Musical” 1-3), or secondary parts in musicals like “Hairspray.”  Matthew Perry also gives a good performance as the lovable put-upon guy, who initially is just wallowing in self-pity until he reclaims his happiness (and life).

Though they have no actual scenes together in the film, and physically look differently, Efron and Perry convince that they are playing the same guy in different points in time, a result of the way they read their lines and move, using similar gestures and mannerisms.

Unfortunately, “17 Again” is directed in an unexciting way, switching from one schematic scene to another.  It also doesn’t help that the audience is always ahead of the story and its characters. Overall, the movie is a step down for Burr Steers who did a much better in his first picture, the indie “Igby Goes Down.”

Though the picture is produced by Adam Shankman, a proficient craftsman responsible for “Hairspray” the musical movie and other entertaining films, production values are passable but undistinguished, which could well be the result of what seems to be ultra-modest budget.

The text of “17 Again” could be easily turned into a Broadway musical and then recycled into a movie musical, taking the same successful path of New Line’s “Hairspray,” which began as a John Waters film featuring Divine, then turned into a long-running Broadway musical and then a movie musical starring John Travolta.