Starring: Zach Efron, Leslie Mann, Thomas Lennon
Directed by: Burr Steers (“Igby Goes Down”)
Written by: Jason Filardi (“Bringing Down the House”)
Even when out-of-body fantasies were a groundbreaking movie genre back in the 80s, there wasn’t much creative storytelling behind any of the projects with the exception of “Big” starring Tom Hanks. (Even then, “Big” wasn’t necessarily that type of movie since there wasn’t any switching of bodies between characters).
From “Vice Versa” to “Like Father Like Son” to “18 Again!,” the films told the same coming-of-age tale either about an adult wanting less responsibility or a kid wanting to experience freedom as an adult. While director Penny Marshall was able to capture all the sweet-natured and awkward moments of a boy wanting to become a man before his time in “Big,” (the role gave Tom Hanks his first Oscar nomination of his career) the others simply fell by the wayside as conventional comedies.
The same can be said about Zach Efron’s new film “17 Again.” Despite the similar title, this is not a prequel of the George Burns 1998 movie where he switches bodies with his comatose grandson. Instead, the Efron vehicle is set up like the opposite version of “Big” or more recently “13 Going on 30.” It begins with Mike O’Donnell (Matthew Perry), a down-on-his-luck, underappreciated sales manager in the middle of a divorce, who wishes he could turn back the hands of time and become a teenager again so he can revisit some of the questionable choices he made when he was young and dumb.
After meeting his “spirit guide,” who is working as a janitor in the hallways of his old high school, Mike is given the chance to live his teenage years over again when he is magically swept into a watery wormhole. Once out, he discovers he has transformed back into a 17-year-old. While it really isn’t necessary to explain how exactly this happens in these types of films (remember Voltron in “Big,” the oriental skull in “Vice Versa,” and the Najavo elixir in “Like Father Like Son?”), “17 Again” stands extraordinarily idle by making this portion of the script so open ended.
As a high school senior again, Mike (now played by Efron), returns to his old stomping grounds to play a personal game of “what if” all while keeping an eye on his teenage kids (Sterling Knight and Michelle Trachtenberg) and trying to find out why his wife Scarlett (Leslie Mann) has filed for divorce. Actor Thomas Lennon is an annoying thorn in the screenplay as Mike’s rich, grown-up best friend Ned, who pretends to be his father so he can enroll him back into high school.
Now back in school, we return to Mike’s glory days as he rejoins his old basketball team and attempts to find out where his life went wrong. It starts off wrong for screenwriter Jason Filardi when he puts too much emphasis on paying homage to films of the past like “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Back to the Future.” While most Efron fans probably haven’t seen any of the aforementioned movies, there’s still a familiar aftertaste once “17 Again” is all said and done. Sure, it might be made for an entirely different generation, but even Efron can’t squeeze out enough charisma and charm to get past the lazy script, tween dialogue and references, and unoriginality of it all.