Zac Efron as Mike O'Donnell, who after a rainy night returns home to find that he's not as young as he looks or as old as he feels, in "17 Again".  Burr Steers' film
opened today in the U.S. and Canada.  (Photo: Warner Brothers)

17 Again
Graduating Uneasily From Groundhog Day, 20 Years Later
By Omar P.L. Moore/   
Friday, April 17, 2009

In life when the wheels turn uneasily do you wish you were an innocent?  Maybe, maybe not, but director Burr Steers plays out the what-ifs and maybes of life and its awkwardness to the fullest extent, sometimes admirably other times not so in "17 Again", a comedy that makes the most out of making its audience laugh and occasionally squirm at the taboo relationships and lines that are delicately and playfully crossed. 

Matthew Perry is Mike O'Donnell, miserable, divorced and absolutely nowhere in his late-thirties-early-forties life.  With two kids who barely notice his existence and a nutty billionaire nerd and old high school buddy Ned (Thomas Lennon) who lives in a world of Star Wars and Lord Of The Rings, Mike looks at escaping his own melancholic circumstances.  His expected promotion at a pharmaceutical company is on the line -- and all this is after the glory days of 20 years hence -- 1989 -- where a younger Mike could do no wrong as a fast-talking, slick high school basketball phenom at Hayden High, or as its resident dancing fool.  Zac Efron plays this edition of Mike, shining his pearly whites and a streamlined torso for all the tweener girls to scream and salivate lustily over.

The transition between the two Mikes regrettably utilizes special effects, but once that minor annoyance passes, "17 Again", its biggest weakness and offense the showcasing of the vacuousness or lechery of its women across the board, actually makes a fair effort of presenting relationships and twisting them into pretzel-like discomfort.  Leslie Mann plays Scarlet, a woman who has endured Mike in a husband edition for 20 years, most of them bad.  Mr. Steers' film has fun with the 1980s while poking sport at today with Mr. Efron dutifully indulging, showing up in one scene model-like, a walking advertisement for Giorgio Armani or Calvin Klein, except with more clothes on. 

A trifecta of inappropriate boundary relationships anchor "17 Again": the one Mr. Efron tries to stay away from with Ms. Mann; the fantasy-style tension and comic dance between Mr. Lennon and Melora Hardin, who plays the principal of Hayden High, and the delicate interplay that unfolds between Mr. Efron and Michelle Trachtenberg, who plays Maggie, the teen who is Mike's daughter. 

If any of these dynamics sound remotely familiar it's because the time-shifting, physical and generation-swap scenario 1980s films "Big", "Back To The Future", "Peggy Sue Got Married" and "Like Father, Like Son", have all trodden this path, with "Big" being the most sentimental among them.  Here, Mr. Efron could have chosen the more ambitious task of playing the older Mike in a younger body by trying to behave in the way Mr. Perry does in portraying the older Mike in the older body -- which would have been more interesting if not a taller task.  Mr. Efron declines to take that chance, instead playing to his strengths with his pantheon of teenage girl idolizers, relying on being the handsome, confident clean-cut cool cat that "Hairspray" and "High School Musical" showcased.

If you have nothing better to do you will spot a continuity issue early on, when Mr. Efron's wedding ring mysteriously switches hands during a kitchen conversation with Ned -- it happens at least twice -- but in the fantasy land of starting over or revisiting the past -- not everything has to make sense in "17 Again", a film that will gently amuse, entertain and hold your attention, at least for a short while.

With: Sterling Knight and Hunter Parrish.

Compare: "13 Going On 30", starring Jennifer Garner.

"17 Again" is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association Of America for language, some sexual material and teen partying, "Animal House"-style.  Nothing wrong with any of that, unless of course, you are the parent of a teenager.


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