Zac Efron’s squeaky-clean tweener-bait profile is unlikely to be threatened by “17 Again,” an energetic but earthbound comic fantasy that borrows a few moves, if little inspiration, from “Big” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.” A defanged sophomore outing for helmer Burr Steers, arriving seven years after his darkly humorous debut, “Igby Goes Down,” the tale of a depressed father who gets a second shot at high school glory traffics in the usual cliches about teen misfits, loser dads and high-concept out-of-body experiences. Still, Efron should earn this fanciful fluff a better than passing grade in theaters.
Warner Bros. is unveiling the pic April 9 in Australia and April 10 in the U.K. — a week ahead of its skedded April 17 opening Stateside but later than planned for the Offspring Entertainment production, which the studio inherited from New Line last year. Efron, now 21, was 19 when the cameras rolled, though the “High School Musical” sensation could easily have passed for a kid many years his junior.
A 1989-set prologue wastes no time satiating the targeted adolescent girls in the audience, establishing 17-year-old Mike O’Donnell (Efron) as a varsity basketball star who looks as good shooting the ball topless as he does dancing with cheerleaders pregame. And just in case that doesn’t make him huggable enough, Mike is also smart, sensitive and so devoted to g.f. Scarlet (Allison Miller) that he walks off the court during a fateful game, abandoning his college hoop dreams to be with the girl he loves. (Exactly why his decision is such a matter of future-forfeiting, life-or-death urgency is glossed over by Jason Filardi’s script.)
Some 20 years later, Mike has shed his sprightly pubescent charm and unaccountably adopted the facial features and ironic grimaces of Matthew Perry. He’s also stuck in a dead-end job in pharmaceutical sales, alienated from his kids and separated from wife Scarlet (now played by Leslie Mann), who’s fed up with him for incessantly living in the past. Mike wants nothing more than to return to his youth — and, after an enigmatic encounter with a janitor who might as well have wings attached, he gets his wish.
Magically restored to his teenage body (Efron’s), Mike heads back to high school — where, for the first time, he gets to know his socially awkward son Alex (Sterling Knight) and sullen daughter Maggie (Michelle Trachtenberg). If “17 Again” had proceeded from a straight time-travel premise, it might have actually mined the comedic opportunities and existential implications of the road not taken. But because it’s basically a tale of fatherly redemption in teen-comedy drag, the pic leads Mike not into an alternative future but, rather, into a Capra-esque appreciation of the life he’s got.
Parent-approved teen sex symbol that he is, Efron is ideally cast as a fresh-faced youth with the conservative attitudes of a middle-aged man. In addition to showing off his basketball prowess, the thesp gets a few amusing monologues to play, such as when he publicly humiliates Alex’s jockish tormentor (Hunter Parrish) or gives an unsolicited pro-abstinence lecture in Maggie’s classroom. But the story is bogged down by credibility-stretching coincidences (the jockish tormentor is also Maggie’s b.f.) and internal inconsistencies, as well as a tendency to reduce both of Mike’s children to stick figures.
Going the furthest to counteract all this is the reliably terrific Mann, who persuasively conveys all the emotions — confusion, near-recognition, unmistakable attraction — of an emotionally bruised woman coming face-to-face with a younger version of her soon-to-be-ex. Mann and Efron strike up a real chemistry, particularly in an impromptu dancing/wooing scene that would be far creepier and less charming with the gender roles reversed. In a thankless second-banana role, Perry mostly stays offscreen, the better to conceal the fact that he looks and sounds nothing like Efron.
Thomas Lennon’s wry, unrestrained turn as Mike’s weirdo pal Ned, who keeps a house full of “Star Wars” memorabilia and speaks fluent Tolkienese, proves emblematic of the pic’s patchy hit-to-miss laugh ratio. Apart from a few moments that suggest a modicum of actorly improv, Steers puts no special stamp on the unspecial material.
The print screened for review presented the title as “Seventeen Again” (despite the “17 Again” listed in the press and marketing materials) and lacked end credits.