“Let’s push some pills my peeps”
I feel like Hollywood just remade Big a few years back. It was called 13 Going on 30 and it was an inferior product; but what wouldn’t be in comparison to Penny Marshall’s classic? This year sees the industry go back to that well again with the Zac Efron vehicle 17 Again. It comes from director Burr Steers whose debut was the critical darling Igby Goes Down, so there was potential. Complete with a cast of notable faces and a stellar soundtrack featuring The Virgins, Santogold, and The Kooks, my initial trepidation was pushed aside as I decided to go into this “spiritual journey” mish-mash with an open mind. I’m glad I did, because there are some genuinely funny moments along with a sweet and touching overall message. However, when you look deep into the work you will not find much to grasp onto below the surface. It’s been seen before; the relationship between young-again father and his high school children gets beyond creepy; and everything happens just as you’d assume it would. There are no surprises, but did you really think there would be?
The film is all about Mike O’Donnell, a soon to be 40 year old who has been looking back on his life with regret. As the star basketball player in high school, he chose love and family above a chance to play in, or even go to, college. The past twenty years have been a chore of responsibility he never could own up to despite his beautiful wife and two children. When divorce proceedings commence and he sees once and for all how little his kids see him as a father figure, he comes in contact with Brian Doyle-Murray’s janitor who sends him back, in body not time, to rediscover why he made the choice he did. What is initially looked upon as a chance to be the hero on the court again becomes an opportunity to help his kids against the angst and horrors of high school—becoming a hero in his home life, the path he chose back when he was actually seventeen.
It all begins enjoyably as we see this hotshot kid, (Efron’s young Mike to Matthew Perry’s adult version), do pretty much whatever he wants—he is the most popular boy in school—even being best friends with the biggest dork their age. I’ve only seen Efron in one other film, Richard Linklater’s criminally unreleased Me and Orson Welles, and he was very good in it. What worked in that film is my one criticism of him here, and that is the fact that he looks like he is acting. For a very theatrical role in Welles, it fit perfectly, here, however, in a world that is supposed to be natural, he just doesn’t quite have the skills yet. The ability to be good in a few years is there, but right now I believe his charisma carries him. And that isn’t a bad thing. I actually really enjoyed the moments when his “adult self” came through in his actions and speech after the transformation takes place. The kid is definitely enjoyable to watch.
The real success, though, are performances from Thomas Lennon and Leslie Mann. Mann is in her element with this role; very similar to those her husband Judd Apatow usually casts her to play. Something about this woman just works in portraying the attractive mother any guy would be insane to let get away. As for Lennon, well his absolute crazy absurdity steals each scene he is a part of. As the grown-up version of Mike’s friend Ned, he is a rich computer programmer that collects and lives in the fantasy/comic worlds he grew up idolizing. When Efron’s Mike comes in the house unknown, the two partake in a massive fight scene complete with mace and shield as well as a fun lightsaber dual. But where he really shines is in interactions with high school Principal Masterson, played by “The Office’s” Melora Hardin. Once we discover her true internal workings and Lennon ceases his “peacocking”, the two of them cause massive laughter in their creepiness.
But that is the “good” creepiness. There is a lot of bad to go with it, much to the detriment of the movie. The inherent problem of having a father become the age of his children and try and help them make the basketball team, (Sterling Knight), and practice abstinence, (Michelle Trachtenberg), is that he will become best friend and/or love interest to them respectively. Then there are the pedophilic tendencies of Mann’s mother towards Efron, (even though they are technically married), and what is unavoidable becomes used front and center for jokes. Unfortunately those jokes are of the uncomfortable kind, the audience can’t get their heads around the fact a seventeen year old is hitting on a forty year old or a daughter trying to make out with her father. That’s right … creepy.
Couple that awkwardness with the sheer predictability of it all, 17 Again becomes just a run-of-the-mill teen comedy. I did really like the message at its core, that selflessness and the ability to love outweigh any dreams of grandeur for financial or popular success. Sometimes it just takes longer for some—I’m not sure twenty years is a credible length of time, but the writer did need to make the kids of age—or an event to push them back into the reality of how great their life is. I also liked certain scenes like that of Efron verbally abusing bully Stan, (“Weeds’” Hunter Parrish), in the lunch room, as well as his trying to help the Health teacher get her point across after passing out condoms—there are funny moments. I even enjoyed the filmmakers’ knowledge that they were ripping off so many movies that came before. The allusions to It’s a Wonderful Life, (the greatest “spiritual journey” film in existence), like on the bridge, are great, as is the homage to Back to the Future with Efron’s supposed awakening from his dream to be with his daughter much like Marty McFly wakes to his mother. In the end, though, its weaknesses win out. While it is reasonably harmless, there are just too many other quality alternatives to recommend.
17 Again 4/10 | ★ ½
 (L-R) ZAC EFRON as Mike O’Donnell and THOMAS LENNON as Ned Gold in New Line Cinema’s comedy “17 Again,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. The film also stars Leslie Mann, Michelle Trachtenberg and Matthew Perry. Photo courtesy of New Line Cinema.
 MATTHEW PERRY (center) as the adult Mike O’Donnell in New Line Cinema’s comedy “17 Again,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. The film also stars Zac Efron, Leslie Mann, Thomas Lennon and Michelle Trachtenberg. Photo courtesy of New Line Cinema.