"17 Again" (PG-13)
2 stars out of 4
With his long-term, high-profile Disney stint in the rear-view mirror, heartthrob Zac Efron takes his first steps toward bona fide adult roles in "17 Again." And what tiny steps they are.
From a marketing and career perspective, this movie was a smart choice for Efron, quality notwithstanding. It's safe for the throngs of his "High School Musical" trilogy followers and is just dangerous enough to help him shed a layer of his white bread public image.
An unimaginative mix of roughly two dozen other fantasy comedies, "17 Again" offers up a couple of new riffs on a truly thread bare sub-genre but makes far more unforced errors and one huge casting blunder.
It opens in 1989 with the 5-foot-6-inch Mike (Efron) poised to receive a basketball scholarship. Just before the crucial game, his girlfriend Scarlett delivers the bad news: she's pregnant. Thrown for a loop, Mike bolts from the court, takes Scarlett in his arms and in short order makes her his wife. Goodbye scholarship, hello domestic rut.
It's 20 years later and Mike (now played by the 5-foot-11.5-inch Matthew Perry) and Scarlett (Leslie Mann) are about to get divorced, his two children hate him, he's quit his job in a huff and is living with his super-geek millionaire childhood friend Ned (Thomas Lennon). A visit to the same gym where it all started to go south includes an encounter with a janitor angel (Brian Doyle Murray) and soon Mike (now Mark) is Efron again.
Instead of going back in time, Mark is still in the present day (interesting) and in lieu of trying to fix his own life, he attempts to make his kids better people (very noble). With the life experiences of a 37-year-old, Mark also has a superior intellectual edge on his live-for-the-moment peers, something that gains him respect, disdain and more than a few racy romantic propositions.
Remember when Marty McFly almost kissed his own mother in "Back to the Future?" A situation like that happens here twice, once with Scarlett and with Mike's eldest child Maggie (Michelle Trachtenberg) who is also 17 - not 20 as the timeline has established. For some odd reason, Mike's younger son Alex (Sterling Knight) is also 17.
These unnecessary height and age difference conflicts and the icky cougar/incest possibilities could have easily been remedied if not all together avoided by screenwriter Jason Filardi and director Burr Steers. Then there is the Perry issue.
In addition to Perry being way taller than Efron, the two men don't even look like they could have come from the same gene pool. Perry's got no chin, Efron is lantern-jawed. The list goes on. Only once in the film does another character make note how much Mark looks like the '89 version of Mike and it is quickly written off, attributed to drunkenness.
What saves the film from total oblivion is the performance from the initially grating Lennon and his romantic interest Jane (Melora Hardin), the school principal. Their shared love of Tolkien provides the movie with its most original and provocatively humorous sequence.
Efron's screen presence is undeniable and anyone can tell there's a wealth of untapped talent lurking just below that poster-boy veneer. Later this year, he'll be called on to deliver on that promise as the lead in Richard Linklater's dramatic "Me and Orson Welles." Efron can sing, dance, tell a joke and has a great profile. Let's see if he can also move us and make us think. (New Line)