’17 Again’: Zac and cheese

17again

Films of 17 Again’s ilk all boil down to their flourishes, as the main story is that is told far too often on screen. We’ve seen variations of body-swapping, second-chance, it’s-a-wonderful-life comedies. Hell, even the title of this film is but a year away from yet another age switcharoo comedy.

This one rests mostly on the hunky shoulders of mother-approved heartthrob (and cougar bait) Zac Efron and, to a greater extent, the peripheral players who not only provide the film its biggest laughs and generates its seldom beats of heart.

The film does not base itself in any form of reality, which is obvious from the casting choice of having us believe Efron will grow up to resemble Matthew Perry. It does not bother to explain its rationality, it just inserts Brian Doyle-Murray as some sort of magical high school janitor (oh, that old device?) who gives middle-aged Mike O’Donnell the chance to relive high school again in order to reconnect with his kids and his estranged wife.

He gets to see firsthand the pain and neglect felt by his family, but 17 Again never really cares to dig too deep into its emotional well, preferring to keep things on a surface level and wring yuks out of the young Mike-old Mike dichotomy.

The whole things really serves as a slowly transitioning “proving ground” for Efron to move out of the role of a basketball star of high school musicals, by placing him as… er, a basketball star in a high school comedy. He proves adept with the comedy and the light drama, yet the verdict is still out on whether he’s able to surpass the pretty-boy trappings and launch into Leonardo DiCaprio and Johnny Depp levels of acting proficiency.

The real reason that makes 17 Again worth a passing glance is its supporting characters, including the immensely loveable Leslie Mann as Michael’s fed-up wife. Here, she makes the most of a somewhat meatier role than is commonly handed to women in films of this nature. She plays just the right balance of confidence, vulnerability, skepticism and snark.

The true breakout is Thomas Lennon, perhaps best known as Lt. Dangle on the Comedy Central series Reno 911. Here he plays Ned, Michael’s high school nerd pal who’s amassed a small fortune in the computer business and who sees this opportunity as a chance to pile on all the coolness he lacked back in the day.

Obviously, he fails miserably, which is a benefit to viewers. Where he does make strides is by repeatedly seeking the affection of the school’s single, hottie principal in the form of Melora Hardin (Jan from The Office), who beneath her beauty beats the heart of a fellow geek.

There’s nary an ounce of originality (hadn’t the ’80s deluge of this plot device all but exhausted the concept?), but director Burr Steer, whose last outing, Igby Goes Down, oozed with smarm, here places most of the picture in his cast’s capable hands. Through them, 17 Again is marginally more bearable than it deserves to be. It also demonstrates that Efron may very be able to graduate high school, leave the hoops behind and embark on a potentially solid cinematic career all his own.

~ by usesoapfilm on April 22, 2009.

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