"17 Again"/Zac Efron

A few months back I wrote a column about people, places, and things that I feel I should strongly dislike but for some reason I can’t quite bring myself to do so. I’m a pretty opinionated person and so it’s quite disconcerting when I cannot bring myself to “hate” something when I know good and well I probably should. The focus of this particular column was Justin Timberlake, whom I have a slight man crush on despite desperately wanting to hate him. After watching this movie, I have a sinking suspicion I may have to add another person to that list.

“17 Again” is the story of the middle aged Mike O’Donnell (Matthew Perry) who has lost sight of the good things in his life. As his marriage is coming to an end and his children seem to be less than concerned about spending time with him, Mike lives with his best friend Ned (predictable comic relief played by Thomas Lennon) and regrets the decisions he made in life that led him to this point. Soon, however, he finds himself turned into the teenage version of himself (Efron), enrolls at school, and starts to live his life over again. While part of him struggles to find a way to get back to his real self, part of him is excited about the opportunity for a re-do of sorts.

If you think that sounds similar to “Freaky Friday,” “Big,” “13 Going on 30,” or about 2,200 other films, you would be correct. This is not a unique formula by any means. The age-jumping concept is has been used time and time again and it seems like just about every generation has their own version of this film that sticks out. However, as I’ve said before, I really make an effort not to judge a film based on whether or not it’s been done before. Not every movie can be an original award contender. It’s about entertainment if nothing else. Still, I would be lying if I said my hopes were high going in. Formulaic teen film plus Zac Efron is not likely to equal success in my mind.

I’m pleased to say “17 Again” managed to surprise me. As expected there’s very little “new” here but there is a lot of fun. Best of all, there’s some very good (and very unexpected) acting. A teen flick is usually RIPE with terrible actors who have nothing but a pretty face to go with their complete and utter lack of anything resembling talent. Not so much with this film. Sure, there’s a very award Michelle Trachtenberg trying desperately to play a girl 6 years younger than she really is (awful casting on this one) and the extras are predictably bad. These gaffs are more than made up for, however, by Efron and his son/school mate, played by Sterling Knight. There’s a certain dynamic between the two that works very well and brings an authenticity to the movie that would have been otherwise missing.

Efron especially impressed me with his acting chops. I’ve never really seen this kid in action before. Once, while working, a coworker’s child was watching the original “High School Musical” in my office and I heard enough to know that I did not care to watch volumes two or three. I’ve not seen “Hairspray” because of my well known, long standing hatred of musicals. Until the last couple of weeks when Efron hosted “SNL” and then starred in this film, I hadn’t really seen much of him. I simply knew that, as a teen heart throb that stars in Disney produced musicals, he was to be disliked, sight unseen. I stand by this assessment because, let’s be honest, everything this dude is about is pretty much against what the majority of males are about. I mean, come on, the guy sings during basketball games. SINGS. Not good.

But there seems to be, at least on the surface, more to Efron than just the looks and INSANE popularity. Make no mistake about it, “17 Again” is a throw-away film. Without Efron as the headliner, the studio would be thrilled to make 20 million off of this thing. It is very easy, even for much better actors than Efron, to turn in a throw-away performance in a movie like this and it would be hard to fault him for doing so in his first starring role away from the “HSM” franchise. Instead, he plays the character straight and shows some real talent. You can tell that he really put effort into studying Matthew Perry’s mannerisms and brings those to the screen. At the same time, he doesn’t seem to take himself too seriously, which is the other big issue a lot of young talents make in an effort to make sure they’re seen as real actors. This isn’t a film that calls for a dramatic, strong, impassioned leading performance. Efron hits the right chord here and the movie is genuinely pretty good because of that. Perhaps most importantly, I wasn’t constantly aware that I was watching Zac Efron on the screen. I was just watching an entertaining little movie that happened to have a couple of big names in it. Even some of the best actors in Hollywood struggle to play a character instead of playing themselves.

Overall “17 Again” wasn’t life altering and I didn’t come away feeling like I’d just witnessed the changing of the Hollywood guard as I’m sure Disney would like me to feel. Perhaps my extremely low expectations going in influenced my thoughts as I left. But I was entertained, I was impressed by the acting, and unfortunately I think it’s going to be a little harder to dislike Zac Efron from now on. At least, that is, until he sings on the basketball court again. Seriously, that needs to stop.

Grade: B.