By Dan Kois
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, April 17, 2009
Zac Efron is no Lindsay Lohan. That fact will come as a great relief to Efron's management team, who are no doubt crossing their fingers that their blue-eyed meal ticket, the beloved star of the "High School Musical" franchise, has no mug shots in his future. But it's too bad for "17 Again," Burr Steers's engaging but pedestrian comedy, that young Zac doesn't have a little bit more Lohan in him.
Oh, Efron is an appealing actor -- he's charming, he's handsome, and as his performance on "Saturday Night Live" last week made clear, he's game for just about anything. He's effortlessly diverting in his first non-singing, non-dancing major role as an adult trapped in a teen's body in "17 Again." But, unlike Lohan -- who, before she was tabloid fodder, gave a rich and complicated performance as another adult trapped in a teen's body in the excellent 2003 remake of "Freaky Friday" -- Zac Efron has no edge. Other than his razor-sharp jawline, he is completely edgeless. And while that edgelessness might prolong his career, it keeps "17 Again" from having anything surprising to say about teenage life in 2009.
But forget 2009! "17 Again" starts in 1989 -- expertly re-created as an era of big hair, Young MC and "Less Than Zero" -- as high-school senior Mike O'Donnell (Efron) blows his chance at a basketball scholarship when he leaves the court to chase after, and propose to, his pregnant girlfriend, Scarlett. Twenty years later, Mike -- now played, in casting that will horrify Zac Efron's young fans, by lumpen sourpuss Matthew Perry -- is bemoaning the life he could've had, as his company passes him over for promotion and Scarlett (Leslie Mann) readies divorce papers. When a mysterious, twinkly old man transforms Mike into his 17-year-old self, Mike re-enrolls at Hayden High School as "Mark," aiming to get the things right that he got wrong last time.
Once back in the classrooms of his youth, however, he finds that his two children are having a very different high-school experience than they've been letting on. Brainy senior Maggie (Michelle Trachtenberg, in her unrewarding ninth year of playing high-schoolers) is secretly dating a jerk from the basketball team. Underclassman Alex (engaging Disney star-on-the-rise Sterling Knight) is being duct-taped to toilets by that same jerk (Hunter Parrish). Can their new friend "Mark" set them on the right path?
Zac Efron, bless him, is not the kind of actor who puts a lot of work into figuring out how to act like a depressed, miserable 37-year-old guy. So as soon as Mike transforms, he becomes impossibly confident and suave, and "17 Again" has a grand old time imagining the chaos that would reign over any high school ecosystem if someone who looked and acted like Zac Efron appeared out of nowhere. Awesome parties spring forth! Bullies get dressed down! The basketball team starts winning close games! And the young women of Hayden High fall all over themselves at the charms of the new kid.
To its credit, "17 Again" doesn't shy away from the potentially uncomfortable side effects of Zac Efron's handsomeness and wrings some surprising humor out of undertones both quasi-Oedipal (as mom Scarlett finds herself attracted to her son's new friend) and queasily Electrafied (as Maggie develops a crush on her own dad). As weird as these scenes might be, they're dealt with straightforwardly by screenwriter Jason Filardi and director Steers, and aren't nearly as wince-inducing as, say, the multicultural trio of self-described "sluts" who throw themselves at Mike in the hallways. Tweaking his own squeaky-clean image, teen idol Efron delivers grown-up lectures on morality to his peers. "If you don't respect yourselves, how is any boy going to respect you?" he demands. ("Oooh, don't respect me," one girl coos in return.)
What's disappointing about "17 Again" is that its view of teenagerhood is as straightforward as its leading man (boy).
Any number of recent teenage entertainments -- from "Freaky Friday" to "Freaks and Geeks" to "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" -- have explored the darkness and complication hidden in every pubescent heart, even as they've cheerfully embraced the clothes, the bods, and the humor of high school as well. "17 Again," alas, isn't that kind of story.
Zac Efron's teenage fans will give "17 Again" a hearty, squealing OMG. Their parents, in the unlikely event that they are invited along, will appreciate the movie's brisk pace and nifty supporting cast (including comedy standbys Melora Hardin, Thomas Lennon, Margaret Cho and Jim Gaffigan) -- but will walk out of "17 Again" wishing that their daughters' unattainable love object, and the movie that's going to make him an even bigger star, was just a teensy bit more dangerous.
"17 Again" (105 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for language, some sexual material and teen partying. Yes, teen partying.