It’s a strange movie indeed that is all about a 37-year-old heterosexual male and yet isn’t likely to appeal to any 37-year-old heterosexual males. Its protagonist notwithstanding, 17 Again is built to appeal to teen girls, preteen girls and boys, cougars, and gay males. The reason will be immediately obvious to anyone who’s heard of High School Musical: 17 Again is the first full-fledged, non-musical vehicle for the teen-idolized, puppy-loved song-and-dance-man Zac Efron.
When Hollywood sees the opportunity to dress up a new star, it’s time for an “old hat” fitting. 17 Again is an only slightly altered chapeau in the magic-realist comedy style: remember Freaky Friday, Big, Like Father, Like Son, Vice Versa, 13 Going on 30, and 18 Again! to name but a few? Well, subtract a year from the last, and you get 17 Again, in which Efron’s seventeen-year-old Mike O’Donnell grows up to look like doughy old Matthew Perry. The father of two teens (Sterling Knight and Michelle Trachtenberg) with whom he utterly fails to connect, Mike considers the road not taken: at seventeen, he passed up a basketball scholarship to commit to family life with Scarlett (Leslie Mann), whose divorce filing is about to be finalized. Before you can say, “Aww, gee, Mary, it is a wonderful life!” Mike looks like Efron again.
With the help of lifelong best bud Ned (Thomas Lennon)—who grew up to be a filthy rich software engineer—Mike reasons that “spirit guide transformation magic” has given him a second chance at life and/or a unique opportunity to bond with his kids. This is the sort of comedy that throws money (not ingenuity) at its creative problems, and barrels ahead hoping that we won’t notice the plotholes (like how two key characters who knew Mike well in high school fail to recognize him) and only-in-the-movies nonsense (like Scarlett throwing Mike’s belongings into a wood chipper or Ben eating breakfast wearing pointy ears). As for lessons, young viewers can learn empathy for their parents, to seize the day, or to vicariously enjoy a father's loving care. Don't ask what the cougars and gay men will learn, but it's safe to say they'll be divided when Mike blurts, "I'm not gay!"
Since it’s essentially a one-way body-swap movie, 17 Again sidelines Perry for most of the running time. Unfortunately, if Efron is attempting to adopt his co-star’s mannerisms—as Face/Off proved, the true pleasure of a body-swap flick—he still needs a few more acting classes. There’s a leaden inevitability to the processed uplift and exaggerated, prefab gags—and not just because of the ubiquitous previews. Those indifferent to Efron (or those who loathe him) will hate this movie, while those who love him will enjoy it the same way they enjoy gazing moonily at an Abercrombie & Fitch ad (like a model, Efron seems to have been given extra sheen in post-production).
So to review 17 Again is to review Efron. His appeal does reach beyond his genetic gifts (though the film starts there, as a sweaty, topless Efron shoots hoops in the high school gym). His charm and open-heartedness go a long way, as does his physical skill, seen in the b-ball tricks that were also his métier in High School Musical. Much as he’d like to break free of the niche, Efron could be the next Gene Kelly. Having dropped out of Footloose to book a drama with his 17 Again director Burr Steers, Efron should take pause from his sole transcendent moment here: when, in his basketball uniform, he does a joyous half-court dance to “Bust a Move.” Zac, get back...c'mon, before we crack.
[This review first appeared in the Palo Alto Weekly.]
New Line/Warner sends home 17 Again in a tight and attractive hi-def transfer on Blu-ray. The bright and colorful comedy retains its sharp appearance and offers great depth, detail, and texture. Even shadow detail impresses, and though there's a touch of edge enhancement, the picture is otherwise free of any digital artifacts. The definitive Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix ably recreates the theatrical surround experience, perking up especially for crowd scenes and the odd special effect.
As the disc's cover indicates to Zac Efron fans, this disc is "Packed with Zac! Over 30 minutes more with Zac." Okay, "Packed with Zac" may be overstating things a bit, but there are a few cool bonus features here. "Zac Goes Back" (12:32, HD) is a pretty standard overview featurette about the movie, its inception, and its cast and crew. Participants include Zac Efron, Matthew Perry, Leslie Mann, Tom Lennon, director Burr Steers, producer Adam Shankman, producer Jennifer Gibgot, writer Jason Filardi, Michelle Trachtenberg, Sterling Knight, and Hunter Parrish.
"Going Back to 17" (3:13, HD) is the requisite "Would you want to be 17 again, and what would you do?" featurette, posing the questions to Efron, Perry, Mann, Lennon, Trachtenberg, Knight, Parrish, Steers, Gibgot, and Filardi.
A fun if somewhat dubious bonus is the Way Cool Tell-All Trivia Track, which promises "the super-secret gossip on set, little-known facts about the cast and crazy tidbits on things from the '80s." Sample: "As a kid, Zac learned 'The Running Man' from a dancing scene in the Ninja Turtles II movie." True, or a false plug for another New Line movie? Who can say, though elsewhere in the extras Efron plays dumb as he's taught supposedly alien '80s dance moves. I smell a conspiracy to keep the truth from eleven-year-old girls...
"Breakin' Character Outtakes" (3:24, HD) may sound like another dance featurette but it's actually a gag reel.
"Zac's Dance Flashback" (2:10, HD) goes behind-the-scenes of the cut party dance sequence with Efron, Shankman, associate choreographer Zach Woodlee, associate choreographer Anne Fletcher, and Steers.
Lastly, we get an amusing collection of thirteen "Additional Scenes" (16:05 with "Play All" option, SD). Oh, and the youngsters will be pleased to know there's a Digital Copy on a second disc that'll make it easier to take Zac along with them wherever they go.
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