Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Review: 17 Again (2009)

17 Again
102 minutes
Rated PG-13

by Scott Mendelson

There is a constant conflict within 17 Again, the pull over whether to be a real movie with real issues at its core vs. the need to appeal to the basest instincts in the stereotypical fans of teen-star Zac Efron. While the film sets up a genuinely compelling narrative, it quickly ignores that which made its story interesting in favor of assembly-line plot developments and overly broad character work. There's an awfully good movie lurking about three or four drafts down the line from where the screenwriter Jason Filardi apparently stopped. But, be it because of the WGA strike or a general lack of nerve, the film never really tells the story that it wants to tell.

A token amount of plot: Mike O'Donnell (Matthew Perry) forever regrets the fateful choice he made as a high school senior, to run off the basketball court in a key game in order to declare that he would marry his pregnant girlfriend. Having forsaken college and dreams of basketball stardom, he's currently stuck in a dead-end corporate job, with two teenage children who loathe him and a wife who has just thrown him out of the house, a consequence of eighteen-years of self-pity. However, at his lowest point, a burst of magic turns Mike into his seventeen-year old self (Zac Efron), giving Mike the chance to redo high school all over again. But is that really why he was transformed?

While the film is capably acted by all involved (as Mike's wife, Leslie Mann is given more to do than in her own husband's Funny People), the script feels like a first draft. Explicit plot and character exposition is doled out in overt expository monologues and very little is left unexplained during the somewhat rushed first act. Furthermore, the film never really deals with what Mike really wants. He doesn't want to relive high school, he wants to go back to high school in 1989 and make different choices. But since a mainstream family comedy can't really have a hero (played mostly by a teen idol no less) who wishes he didn't have his kids, the film tries to have it both ways. He gets to relive high school as himself, but in the present so his wife and kids are still alive and well. It's a strange paradox that turns the film into a variation on Quantum Leap, with Mike trying to figure out what he has to do to make things right. Playing the part of Al/Ziggy is Mike's high school chum, nerd-turned-billionaire nerd Ned Gold (Thomas Lennon), who has a superfluous romantic subplot with the school principal. Ironically, a first-act toy light-saber fight between 'young' Mike and older Ned is better choreographed and edited than most action-film sword fights.

Alas, the second and third acts are pretty much on autopilot, as he must be the husband and father to his family that he never was as an adult, while still maintaining his seventeen-year old visage. On the plus side, Mrs. Scarlett O'Connell almost immediately realizes that something is up (she quickly notices the fact that this new kid looks EXACTLY like Mike from high school), which allows the movie to plausibly dabble in a quasi-romantic narrative between young Mr. O'Connell and a grown-up Scarlett. The film is relatively inoffensive and Zac Efron proves yet again that he is a true honest-to-goodness movie star (he also rocked in Hairspray), but the picture never really tries to break out of its cookie-cutter formula. Call it a mediocre, watchable missed opportunity.

Grade: C+

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