by HELEN GEIB
17 Again is a pleasant comedy-drama about a man who discovers you can’t go back, but you can learn to appreciate what you have and mend what you’ve broken.
Mike O’Donnell’s (Matthew Perry) life has hit rock bottom. His wife Scarlett (Leslie Mann), fed up with being blamed for all the disappointments in her husband’s life, has filed for divorce. His daughter Maggie (Michelle Trachtenberg) is giving him the silent treatment while his son Alex (Sterling Knight) only tells him what he thinks his dad wants to hear. To top things off, he is unfairly passed over for a promotion at work and reduced to crashing at the home of his best friend Ned (Thomas Lennon).
Mike’s fondest wish is to re-live his high school glory days, but he gets more than he bargained for when his wish comes true: sucked into a supernatural whirlpool, he emerges in the body of his 17 year old self. Spending time with his family incognito gives him a new perspective on his marriage and shows him there’s too much he doesn’t know about his kids.
Teenage Mike is played by Zac Efron of “High School Musical” fame. (In a big shout-out to HSM fans, an introductory scene has the young Mike, star player on the basketball team perform a dance routine with the cheerleaders before the big game.) The “High School Musical” films showcased Efron’s good looks, charisma, and athleticism. 17 Again proves his range and ability to carry a film. Mike is physically 17 for most of the story; Efron’s performance as a husband and father of two going through a mid-life crisis while inhabiting the body of a teenager is the film’s greatest asset.
There is nothing exactly bad about 17 Again, but there is much that is innocuous, including the direction by Burr Steers, cinematography, and production design. Mike’s bizarre transformation is no more difficult to accept than the O’Donnells’ showroom-ready home and garden on his take-home pay and with two kids about to leave for college, in the Southern California real estate market no less. A fair amount of the comedy feels forced, notably the would-be zany subplot of oddball Ned’s courtship of the high school’s principal, but also parts of Mike’s difficulties adjusting to teen metabolism and contemporary youth culture.
Where the film is on solid ground is its exploration of the pros and cons of being a good father to your teenagers when you look like their peer. The situation has rich comic potential and the script and performances do a good job exploiting it. There are a number of clever scene set-ups and bits of dialogue; I especially liked the funny-sad scene where Mike gives fatherly counsel about respecting yourself to his daughter’s promiscuous friends. The heartfelt moments that come as Mike tries to step back into his proper role as husband and father are also effective. Light comedy about the rewards and challenges of fatherhood and sincere expressions of familial love are what 17 Again does best.
Although I can’t give 17 Again a high star rating, I can recommend it to teenagers, parents looking for a nice family movie to see with the kids, and adults of an age to think seriously about how their lives might have turned out if they’d made different choices in young adulthood. The story’s special appeal to those groups makes the film well worth seeing despite its flaws.