On the face of it, there's little to suggest that 17 Again would prove to be anything more than it is--i.e., a tween-pitched riff on the "body-switching" construct that popped up in so many mid-level comedies during the late 1980s. But one name leapt off the poster: Burr Steers. This is the writer/director who helmed the excellent indie Igby Goes Down in 2002 and pretty much disappeared afterwards (aside from sharing a screenwriting credit on How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days, which I'd like to pretend didn't happen, and I'm sure Steers shares the sentiment). Alas, this appears to be a paycheck job for the inventive writer/director; 17 Again is a vanilla concoction that never transcends its formulaic roots.
We begin in 1989, as Mike O'Donnell (Zac Efrron) is enjoying the spoils of high-school popularity--he's got a pretty girlfriend, he's the star of the basketball team, and he can apparently join the cheerleaders in the middle of a choreographed dance routine right in the middle of a game. (I wish I were making that last one up.) But his girlfriend shows up in the middle of a big game in front of a college recruiter to tell him she's pregnant (nice timing, hon) and he walks off the court, ready to do the right thing.
Fast forward to twenty years later, as Mike (played as an adult by Matthew Perry) is a miserable wreck--his job stinks, his kids hate him, and his marriage is ending. His wife Scarlett (Leslie Mann) has the expected laundry list of complaints (he resents her, he's never happy, he never finishes anything, etc), while his kids say that they never see him. He's been kicked out of the house and is living with his high school buddy Ned (Thomas Lennon), who went from school dork to Internet millionaire.
Then Mike makes a visit to his high school, where a crusty janitor (is there any other kind?) gets him to admit he wishes he could go back and do it all again. Then, faster than you can say "Clarence," Mike jumps off a bridge to save the janitor from drowning, and wakes up in his 17 year old body. He decides it's some kind of a mission to help save his kids, so Ned masquerades as his father and gets him enrolled in high school. Hijinks ensue, shenanigans occur, he becomes a better father by getting to know his kids as their peer, and so on and so forth.
Some interesting permutations occur, and I'll give them this much--at least the film is derivative of multiple sources (the set-up is reverse-Big, the high school scenes are out of Like Father, Like Son, and when his daughter develops a crush on him, all you can think of is Back to the Future). But the screenplay, by Jason Filardi (of Bringing Down the House, unfortunately) doesn't have any comedic follow-through; he knows construction but not execution. The events onscreen follow a logical progression, but they never build in any way--there's no momentum, so even the occasional funny line just sort of lays there lifelessly.
The performances aren't bad. Efron is an actor I've heard of (because I live in America and have the Internet) but haven't seen much of (because I've managed to avoid the High School Musical juggernaut); his comic timing could use some sharpening, but he's pretty decent (particularly, and surprisingly, when he's required to do some heavy dramatic lifting towards the end of the picture). Lennon (familiar from Reno 911! and I Love You, Man) has been given a total cliché to play, but he brings it off with some gusto; same goes for Nicole Sullivan and Melora Hardin. I've got nothing but love for Matthew Perry, but he's pretty much phoning it in here--it's a listless, dull-edged performance, though he doesn't get many funny lines to chew on. However, as she did in Drillbit Taylor, Leslie Mann manages to rise above the mediocrity of the script and deliver a spunky performance, full of spark and life.
The way that Steers and Filardi shifts their weight to Mann and Efron/Perry in the third act helps the overall punch of the film; they finally manage to create some stakes and pull off some of the pathos of the third act, in spite of the diluted nature of what's come before. But by then, it's too little, too late.
THE BLU-RAY DISC:
17 Again hits Blu-ray in a two-disc set, offering three methods of viewing the film. The first disc is the 25GB Blu-ray, which includes the film and special features. The second disc is a single-layer movie-only standard-def presentation, plus a digital copy for portable devices.
New Line's VC-1-encoded 1080p presentation is top-notch; the 2.39:1 image is razor sharp, with natural skin tones, deep and rich blacks, and vivid colors that pop from the screen. Image depth is also first-rate, and the overall video presentation is clean and vibrant.
The English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 breaks out of the front-and-center mold of most comedies by making impressive use of its surround and LFE channels. From the opening basketball game to the rumbling thunderstorm during Mike's transformation to the extended house party sequence, the mix bursts from the sides and rear at every opportunity without ever overwhelming the dialogue, which is sharp and audible in the center channel.
A Dolby Digital 5.1 track is also offered, as are English SDH and Spanish subtitles.
The bonus features are fairly lame, though one gets the impression that at least an effort was made. First is "Zac Goes Back" (12:32), a slick EPK piece. With the exception of some funny interview snippets with Perry (he gets more laughs here than he does in the movie), it is mostly comprised of bland, cliché soundbites ("Everybody had to bring their A-game!") and self-congratulation. "Going Back to 17" (3:13) features quick reflections by the cast and crew on their teen years, while the "Breakin' Character Outtakes" (3:24) offers barely any laughs, despite the funny folks in the film (and I like me a good outtake reel). "Zac's Dance Flashback" (2:10) is a brief look at Efron's 80s dance choreography (yawn). Thirteen Additional Scenes (16:05) are included--some deleted, some extended, most disposable.
But the dopiest extra of the bunch is the--hang on, let me quote direct from the box--"'Way Cool' Tell-All Trivia Track: On-Set Gossip, Cast 411--All While You Watch The Movie." First of all: cast 411? Grown-ups, please don't try to write like "the kids." Second: can you think of one of these "trivia tracks" (aside from Pulp Fiction) that was any good whatsoever? This one is expectedly inane; according to the "way cool" trivia track, for example, "other popular dances from 80s include 'The Cabbage Patch,' 'The Running Man,' and 'The Hammer Dance.'" Thanks for the 411, trivia track.
The disc also trumpets its BD-Live content, but I'll be damned if I could get it to work; whether I tried to play the "Lennon Hardin" extra ("putting two comedic improv masters together, in many of the same scenes, will leave you wondering how the Director ever finished this film!") or the "Zac Attacks" extra ("You will not believe what happens when you put Zack Efron and Tom Lennon together in a battle scene with medieval science fiction weapons!"), I was treated to a Warner Brothers logo inside a moving circle, and was then asked if I would like to replay or delete the "extra." Maybe it's operator error; either way, I'm pretty sure I didn't miss much.
17 Again is not a terrible movie; indeed, it's full of likable performances and offers occasional chuckles. But there are no surprises in it. Every beat, every theme, every situation has been done before, many times before, and better. It's the umpteenth take on material that wasn't much to start with, so if you're not a teenage girl (or boy) with an incurable case of Efron fever, there's not much in the way of diversion for you here.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.