Sometimes you have to poke through the obvious exterior of a movie and keep an open mind. Recently I decided to dig up 17 Again, a Zac Efron vehicle from 2009 that got panned by many critics, but which got a fairly positive buzz nonetheless. I always planned on getting back to it, but never got around to it, until now… and I must say that the critics had it wrong this time. This is a largely enjoyable feature about what it means to grow old and the responsibilities that brings with it.
In 17 Again we return to a Big-like story (except in reverse) about a guy who has doubts about the choices he made when he was young. During an important basketball game he chooses to go for the girl instead of the winning play. The ramifications of this choice have kept him occupied all his life. And one night he asks the powers that be to be seventeen again. His wish is granted, the only problem is that he did not specify the time in which he wanted to be seventeen again. See, even asking for a wish he can’t do very well. He becomes seventeen in the present day and that is anything but ideal.
Zac Efron never really showed up on my radar before. It is that dreaded cute-guy-syndrome Leonardo DiCarpio and a score of other guys have been struggling with in their career. Efron shows in 17 Again that he can handle himself beyond being the cute guy who brings the teenage girls into the theaters. His performance is believable and that is all we were asking for in this fantasy-tale of redemption and getting that coveted second chance. His older self is played by Matthew Perry and he is excellent. He has that quality to him a lot of guys can relate to. He is a little chubby, you see he wonders about what could have been, he is insecure and he just doesn’t want to commit to a life that entails having less fun and having more responsibility.
Everything in 17 Again hinges on the performances, because the story we have seen a million times before. Efron and Perry are excellent as the main lead, Leslie Mann plays his wife and Thomas Lennon (Reno 911!) is hilarious as the guy who was the nerd in high school and now has a house that resembles the ultimate man-cave. And Melora Hardin (The Office) plays the hard-nosed principal of the school who takes an interest in Lennon’s character. Their dinner together is one of the true highlights of 17 Again.
Director Burr Steers made Igby Goes Down in 2002, a movie I didn’t feel much for and which I thought was too heavy-handed for its own sake. In 17 Again he seems to have found a more pleasant balance between drama and comedy. He went on to make another movie with Efron called Charlie St. Cloud, which I have yet to see. That flick got panned as well by the critics, so maybe I’ll just have to check that one out as well.