Stolen Youth

Zac Efron displays talent and charm in the enjoyable, if unoriginal '17 Again'

Call me crazy, but this Zac Efron fellow might have a future.

The High School Musical star impressed in Hairspray, and now he gets to headline in 17 Again. Yes, it's another one of those "man gets a chance to be young again" films, and yes, much of it feels like recycled sitcom pap. Fortunately, Efron anchors the film with a winning, charming performance that has me looking forward to his future film roles, and hoping good directors give him chances to make some quality work.

That's not to say this film is bad. There is nothing new here, but it is enjoyable thanks to the lead's star power. Efron hosted a recent Saturday Night Live, and I was impressed with his poise and comic abilities. (Like Justin Timberlake, Efron seems to have developed some decent comic chops thanks to his Disney upbringing.) His timing is even good enough to make some lame jokes funny.

The film starts as teenager Mike O'Donnell (Efron) is readying himself for a big high school basketball game sure to be attended by college scouts. The year is 1989, and Mike has it all: big dreams, big talent and a fabulous girlfriend named Scarlett. As the game begins, Scarlett drops a bomb, and Mike makes a big impromptu decision.

Cut to 20 years later. Mike (played in adulthood by Matthew Perry) has become a sullen whiner who fails to see the beauty in his life, which features a still-fabulous Scarlett (the ever-reliable Leslie Mann) and two great kids, Alex and Maggie (Sterling Knight and Michelle Trachtenberg). After getting passed over for a promotion, he visits his old high school to sulk, meets a mysterious janitor (Brian Doyle-Murray) and, through movie magic, becomes 17 (and Zac Efron) again.

The film wastes little time on the potential trauma of such an occurrence, as Mike makes a quick decision to return to school and do things right this time. He shacks up with his high school buddy, the now grown-up Ned (Thomas Lennon of Reno 911), a software king who never let go of his geek tendencies. He's a rich man who spends his money on things like Luke Skywalker's land speeder, which he uses for a bed.

Ned pretends to be Mike's dad, and they enroll him in school. Things get weird as Mike discovers his son is a dweeb who gets taped to toilets, and his daughter is dating the class asshole who wants sex. Befriending his kids eventually gets him near his wife, somebody he was divorcing before the whole getting-young thing happened. Obviously, being around the wife while occupying a 17-year-old's body creates confusion.

Efron breezes through the film, taking his role seriously and transcending the material. He's also rather good at capturing some of Perry's adult mannerisms. (At times, he seems to be channeling Chandler Bing.) His ability makes it believable that his character could grow up to be Perry, even though the two don't look much like each other.

The supporting cast is equally up to the task. Mann, always good in her husband Judd Apatow's movies, is quickly becoming one of the better comic actresses working today. Lennon takes a real goofball role and makes the character endearing. Perry, in his few scenes, does his usual shtick, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

The film rips off many sources, especially Big and Back to the Future, and it does it without shame. Still, the actors, especially Efron, make 17 Again mildly entertaining, slightly above-average fare.

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