17 Again (United States, 2009)

April 16, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
17 Again Poster

The reason "body swap" movies (in which someone's mind is transposed into a different body) are so popular is because they are ripe with potential. Unfortunately, that potential is rarely reached. Productions like Big and Prelude to a Kiss are the exceptions, not the rule. 17 Again falls into the less creative, more generic majority category. Imagine a generic script and mediocre acting and you have unearthed the essence of 17 Again, which appears to have been made for the sole purpose of spotlighting Zac Efron. The target audience is roughly the same as for Hannah Montana: The Movie, and the quality is in the same neighborhood as well.

The first mountain to climb - and one I had problems with - is a simple suspension of disbelief issue. At age 17, most people look pretty much the way they will appear for the majority of their adult lives. Sure, the face will mature a little, the midsection will get thicker, and the hair may start to thin and show some gray, but the average 17-year old bears a strong resemblance to his future 35-year old self. So how are we supposed to accept that the main character can be Zac Efron at 17 and Matthew Perry at 35? These actors look nothing alike and that makes it difficult to accept this movie on the most basic level. If this is designed as a vehicle for Efron, why not put him in some old age makeup for the scenes when the character is 35? It may seem like a little thing, but it's symptomatic of a bigger problem: the filmmakers don't give their viewers credit for a minimum level of observation and, as a result, have produced a sloppy, lazy motion picture.

The film opens in 1989, with 17-year old high school senior and basketball standout Mike O'Donnell (Efron) about to play the game of his life. There are scouts in attendance and his coach informs him that if he plays the way he's capable of playing, a scholarship is guaranteed. Unfortunately, his girlfriend, Scarlett, chooses that moment to tell him she's pregnant. He walks off the court and declares that the only future that matters to him is spending the rest of his life with her and raising their baby. Cut to 2007. Mike (Perry) is washed-up and sick of his life. Scarlett (Leslie Mann) is getting a divorce and his two teen kids, Alex (Sterling Knight) and Maggie (Michelle Trachtenberg), regard him with ill-disguised distaste. The only one who cares about him is his lifelong buddy, Ned (Thomas Lennon). When a mysterious janitor offers him the opportunity to "do it all over again," Mike eagerly agrees. Suddenly, his body has regressed to what it was at 17 - only now his wife is twice his age and he's in the same school as his kids. He decides that, if he wasn't emotionally available to Alex and Maggie when they were growing up, now is the time to change things, but as their friend, not their father.

Workable ideas are often poisoned by tired, unfunny humor and "zany" scenes that drag on for too long. None of the characters escapes his or her caricature orbit. They're a bunch of stereotypes and their one-dimensionality makes them uninteresting. Most embarrassing of all is uber-nerd Ned's courting of the school principal (Melora Hardin). Their cringe-inducing encounters represent scenes likely to send most self-respecting geeks fleeing from the auditorium. Ned isn't funny. He's annoying. He's a pustule. And he absorbs way too much screen time.

17 Again botches some potentially edgy material when considering possible romantic entanglements between young Mike and MILF Scarlett as well as young Mike and his same-age daughter, Maggie. This stuff could have made for a zany sex farce, but the PG-13 rating and lack of wit in Jason Filardi's screenplay wipe out that opportunity. The movie doesn't come close to the family-friendly comedic pseudo-incest flirted with in Back to the Future. That, apparently, is deemed too unsettling for today's audiences. So 17 Again none-too-cleverly tap dances around these issues.

One could argue that, at one time or another, many adults fantasize about re-living the "glory days" of their youth. It's a poignant commentary on the human experience that only time imparts the wisdom to realize what has been lost. 17 Again attempts to express a little of this, but it fizzles in the execution. Too little time is spent in the company of Mike 35. There's a sense that the filmmakers rush through the early scenes to return Efron to the screen as quickly as possible, botching the crucial setup in the process. At no point does the Perry incarnation of Mike achieve a semblance of humanity. When Mike 17 is on screen, the "hook" for omniscient viewers is that he's a middle- age man trapped in a high school kid's body, but neither the script nor Efron effectively "sells" this. There are quips and moments that remind us of this, but being told something by a movie and believing it are not the same. The film's inability to cross that line allows for disappointment for adults hoping to enjoy this personal time-trip fantasy.

Director Burr Steers lacks the good sense to end the proceedings in a fundamentally satisfying manner. Yes, there's a "happy" resolution, but the conclusion seems rushed is poorly structured. The big "reveal" never really happens and what replaces it is lame. In the end, Mike learns a life lesson about the importance of not taking the ones you love for granted and not regretting paths untraveled, but those things are conveyed with as little subtlety as possible. Despite the PG-13 rating, this movie targets girls in the 8-12-year old range. Older viewers who end up in the auditorium for one reason or another can spend the time daydreaming about when they were 17 and looked just like Zac Efron, too.

17 Again (United States, 2009)

Director: Burr Steers
Cast: Zac Efron, Leslie Mann, Thomas Lennon, Matthew Perry, Sterling Knight, Michelle Trachtenberg, Hunter Parrish, Melora Hardin
Screenplay: Jason Filardi
Cinematography: Tim Suhrstedt
Music: Rolfe Kent
U.S. Distributor: New Line Cinema
Run Time: 1:42
U.S. Release Date: 2009-04-17
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1