Mike O'Donnell (Matthew Perry) was the big man on campus in his day. As the star of the school basketball team, everyone told him he was on the verge of doing great things with his life, and he believed it. Unfortunately, on the day of the big game, his girlfriend Scarlett drops a bombshell on him: he's about to be a father. Mike ditches the game, and seventeen years later, he finds himself facing a divorce from an unhappy Scarlett and father to two children, Alex (Sterling Knight) and Maggie (Michelle Trachtenberg), who don't like him. Returning to the school where he gave it all up, he ends up talking to a mysterious janitor (Brian Doyle-Murray), and wakes up the next day as his seventeen-year-old self (Zac Efron). Enlisting the help of his nerdy best friend Ned (Thomas Lennon), Mike enrolls in school and sets about taking another shot at the life he left behind.
First things first: as much as I hate to admit it, there's no denying that Zac Efron is the biggest factor in making anything in 17 Again work. Despite his feathered hair and skinny jeans (which even Trachtenberg's character comments on), the guy has surprisingly good comic timing and good on-screen chemistry with literally every single one of his co-stars. Obviously, this isn't the kind of movie that lures out a bravado performance, but as far 17 Again goes, he doesn't make any noticeable missteps. I remember seeing him on the front cover of some teenybopper magazine at work a couple of years ago, causing me to have a real "kids these days" moment where I scoffed at the way he spells his name and his Disney Channel geniality, but I'll begrudgingly concede that he's got noticeable charisma, and he's probably (deservedly) going to be the next big star (if he isn't already).
Too bad the movie doesn't really know how to deal with Mike interacting with his wife and kids as his newer, younger self. Leslie Mann plays Scarlett, and she does what she can, but all of the scenes with Scarlett and Young Mike are weird because the audience is torn between wanting to see the couple rekindle their waning romance and knowing that Scarlett shouldn't be falling for a 17-year-old kid, no matter who he is on the inside. In another scene, Maggie's meathead boyfriend (Hunter Parrish) grabs a bunch of condoms in a sex ed class, inspiring Mike to make a speech about the meaning of making love and what it's like to hold your firstborn child. In the film, it makes all the girls swoon, but I don't buy that. This may be a dumb comedy, but even though Efron and the other stars play the jokes fairly broadly, the tone of the environment, extras and peripheral characters seems too grounded in reality to accept the way the scene plays out. I'm no fan of Thomas Lennon, but at least his scenes exist in a bit of a social vacuum. Ned goes on a date with principal Masterson (Melora Hardin of "The Office"), and it's one of the few times I actually laughed, because both actors are on the same page.
There are also the normal criticisms for this kind of movie: the act of turning seventeen again really doesn't give Mike any sort of supernatural perception; he could have learned most of the same he finds out about his family by paying more attention. As true as this is, though, it seems like a useless complaint. I doubt even one in a hundred people who saw the film even thought about it. It's more distracting how little investment the filmmakers have in the plot. One of the weirdest things about the film is the total lack of forward momentum; 17 Again doesn't have much of a reason to begin and it barely seems interested in ending. I also usually like Matthew Perry (The Whole Nine Yards is an underrated gem), but he just wanders around, with a mixture of confusion and boredom on his face.
I didn't hate 17 Again, but I'm left to wonder why it exists. It provides a star vehicle for Zac Efron to graduate from High School Musical films to broader, edgier comedy, I suppose, but I'd be shocked if this was the best offer coming across the guy's desk. The film can best be described as lackadaisical, wandering around with the idea and poking in the corners, but ultimately failing to find anything of great interest. Clearly this kind of film has learned nothing from itself: returning to the concept every few years has failed to inspire any sort of epiphany.
Automatic trailers for Me and Orson Welles, Warner Blu-Ray Disc (a terrible promo to put on a standard-def DVD, since it supposedly contains a wipe between DVD and Blu-Ray in it), Scooby-Doo: The Mystery Begins, Shorts, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. No trailer for 17 Again has been included.