17 Again (PG-13)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
You may wonder why it was necessary to add 17 Again to Hollywood's long list of "body swap" comedies, but I have a theory. At some point as young would-be stars rise, the industry needs to figure out if they've really got what it takes. Fish-out-of-water premises — body swapping, time travel, cross-dressing — may be overdone, but when you plug in a new up-and-comer, you can figure out who's got game.
The results over the years have been decidedly mixed. Michael J. Fox (Back to the Future), Tom Hanks (Big) and Lindsay Lohan (Freaky Friday) are among those who scored hits.
On the other hand, Charlie Schlatter basically disappeared after 1988's 18 Again!. Now it's High School Musical star Zac Efron's turn to attempt name-above-the-title status, and 17 Again sort of works — except that one wild card steals Efron's thunder.
This variation opens with high school basketball stud Mike O'Donnell (Efron) looking at a college scholarship — until he opts to marry his girlfriend Scarlett when she gets pregnant. Twenty years later, Mike (Matthew Perry) is a defeated pharmaceutical salesman, and Scarlett (Leslie Mann) is tired of being the scapegoat for his failings. Facing divorce and unemployment, Mike encounters a mysterious janitor (Brian Doyle-Murray) and finds himself transformed back to his 17-year-old self. It's a chance to start his life over again — or maybe it's a chance to help his kids, Maggie (Michelle Trachtenberg) and Alex (Sterling Knight), on their own proper path.
Screenwriter Jason Filardi and director Burr Steers fill the story with all the requisite elements. There's the one person who knows the truth — in this case, Mike's nerd-turned-software millionaire best friend Ned (Thomas Lennon). There's a jerk adversary — bullying jock Stan (Hunter Parrish). And there are plenty of moments for awkward reaction takes, so that we can discover if the star has it.
Most of these elements, it turns out, are fairly perfunctory. Stan proves to be a tepid adversary and Mann's talent is wasted in a bland role. If they wanted a blank backdrop for Efron, the filmmakers mostly succeeded.
What they didn't count on is Lennon. He's hilarious as a one-time loser who has succeeded to the point where he can fill his house with nerd-arobilia like life-sized Darth Vaders, but still has no idea how to get a date. A subplot involving Ned's attempts to woo the high school principal (Melora Hardin) serve up nearly all of the film's biggest laughs, and Lennon's deadpan delivery steals every scene he's in. At a certain point, it begins to seem like a better movie would have abandoned Efron's character entirely.
And that's a shame, because the guy deserves better. Efron's got more than a little charm beyond his dreamboat looks, and he occasionally nails Perry's mannerisms. But the fact is you need soul beyond your years to pull off the weary wisdom of a guy flipped from mid-life crisis to big man on campus. When Efron attempts a tearful monologue expressing Mike's love for his wife, he's just a kid play-acting at understanding those emotions.
So maybe 17 Again doesn't serve its function, if its limited appeal comes in spite of Efron's weaknesses, rather than because of his strengths. Maybe they'll give him another chance with another generic premise — in which case, expect to see him in drag in 2010.