– Summary –
Director : Burr Steers
Cast : Zac Efron, Matthew Perry, Leslie Mann, Thomas Lennon, Michelle Trachtenberg, Sterling Knight
Year Of Release: 2009
Length : 90 Minutes
Synopsis: When a man going through a mid-life crisis (and divorce) suddenly finds himself turned back into a younger variant of his body, he returns to school to help his son and daughter through their problems.
Review : Middling Freaky Friday/Big/Suddenly 30 clone with nothing new to say. Zac Efron does well with a patchy script, however the films real star is Thomas Lennon as the geeky, mega-wealthy best friend Ned. Lennon is a scream, which means that the film’s main star plays second fiddle to a Tolkien loving geek – and for this film, that’s a death sentence. You’ve seen it all before, just not with Zac Efron.
At the outset of this little review of 17 Again, I’d just like to point out that I have successfully managed to avoid ever watching a High School Musical film. Which means that my exposure to teen-idol Zac Efron has been limited to the snippets and glimpses on talk shows and news broadcasts, which to that extent is even a little more than I can handle. I though Efron’s performance in Hairspray a few years back was pretty good, but hardly an award winning move on his part. His all-singing, all-dancing, all-acting personal, honed by years of tutelage within the hallowed halls of Disney, appears for all the world like a sickly, manufactured package of sugary sweetness designed to pull as many young teen girls in as possible. Fairly good business model, if that’s correct.
So it was with a heavy heart that I sat down to view the latest piffle offering from Efron in the form of this man-turns-into-boy Big clone. I had low expectations, and even lower hopes. What I got was pretty much what I expected.
Okay, so I begin this review by being a little snarky towards Efrom and his Disney-fied ilk. To be honest, I feel quite justified getting stuck into their manufactured, cheesy cardboard branding and acting “ability”, but if I was to be fair, I’d say that Efron seems to have risen above that maladious slop and forged a real talent for comedy and performance. And it’s not a bad thing that he looks so damn good; that pulls the chicks, right? Still, his talent appears on the surface to be more about looks than ability.
Guess I was proven right.
17 Again shows that Efron is actually not a bad performer, given the right script and a good director. His portrayal of a young Mike O’Donnell here is an effective effort to produce an “old man in a young body” that has been done to death since film began… Modern examples of body swapping like this include Tom Hanks in Big, both Freaky Friday films, Jennifer Garner in Suddenly 30; 17 Again merely retreads the same tired energy that those films eked out back in their day. There is absolutely nothing new about 17 Again, in fact, you could almost plot out the entire film after the first 15 minutes, it’s so predictable.
In 1989, Mike O’Donnel (Zac Efron) is on the verge of achieving a scholarship to college by helping his team win a basketball game, when his girlfriend Scarlet tells his she’s pregnant. Shocked, Mike takes to the court, only to suddenly stop and chose his new family over a career in sports. This decision ultimately leads to an unfulfilled life, a wife who now wants a divorce, and two kids who hate him. His best friend Ned, Thomas Lennon, is about his only secure and stable element in a life slowly spinning out of control. One night, as he drives along, he encounters a man about to jump off a bridge, only to plummet himself as he tries a rescue. Mike is transformed into the 1989 version of himself again, although still in the present, and is given a opportunity to rectify the problems of his life essentially in “disguise”.
Former Friends star Matthew Perry plays the older version of Mike, which essentially bookends the film, in his traditional hang-dog way that makes Ray Romano so damn one-note annoying. I’ve never felt Perry was a quality actor, and with the majority of his roles to date, felt he was simply coasting on his Chandler character. That, coupled with the concept that somehow uber-hot Efron somehow morphs into knocked-about Perry, is beyond comprehension. Leslie Mann, who annoyed the hell out of me with her whiny, pitchy performance in Knocked Up, plays Mike’s wife Scarlet, a now bitter, lonely woman who’s fallen out of love with her childhood sweetheart. Unlike her show in Knocked Up, Mann is quite good here, her performance among the films’ better ones. Unfortunately, we’re never given a glimpse as to why she’s wanting a divorce, it’s simply stated in dialogue and left at that. Which means her character has no depth, and that’s annoying.
Then there’s Mikes two kids, Maggie and Alex, played by Michelle Trachtenberg and Sterling Knight respectively, who deliver two different performances. First, there’s Trachtenberg, whose glowering pout and foot-stomping Maggie is both difficult to enjoy and annoying as hell to appreciate. She’s dating a total wanker at school (much to Mike’s annoyance), and while you’d like to put this down to teenage daughter rebelliousness, the fact she’s not told her father precludes a sense of “up yours dad”. Trachtenberg is traditionally a good little actress, yet here she’s badly undone by a script that sees her behave differently at the end of the film than at the beginning. Sterling Knight fares little better, although his earnest portrayal as the put-upon schoolboy is endearing overall, and his story arc is perhaps the most entertaining to watch.
Zac Efron really is the mainstay of this film, however he’s not backed up by competent scripting and uneven pacing: the film is fairly fresh and snappy at the start, yet descends into overwrought emotional manipulation towards the end, and that’s where Efron comes undone. He’s not that good an actor as to be able to successfully make the transition to serious tone. He’s excellent at the gawping and mugging for the camera, but his ability to convey true emotion without looking like a cheeky pup is yet to show up. There is a moment in the film, where he dances with Leslie Mann, that comes close to a perfect romantic moment, but the simple fact that his wife is hotting on a younger version of himself is a little creepy. Not to mention when Maggie starts to warm to him too towards the films frenetic ending. Eww. Yes, a film filled once more with awkward incestuous moments that, if played out in real life, might warrant serious criminal charges. Efron is likable enough, but the script doesn’t give him any real room to move here, and with the direction from Burr Steers (more of this shortly) he’s utterly bereft of charm and wit here.
Undoubtedly though, the star of this film ends up being the sidekick character, Ned, played by Thomas Lennon. Lennon, whose film credits include screenwriting tags on Night at The Museum, Taxi, Balls Of Fury, Herbie:Fully Loaded, and appearances in films like How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days, Hancock, Memento and Night At The Museum 2: Battle For The Smithsonian, is simply terrific here as Ned, a man who rather shyly admits to having invented the software to prevent people illegally downloading music (but not before inventing the software that allowed you to in the first place!). He seems somewhat gay at the films outset, but remains rampantly heterosexual by pursuing the new female Headmaster of their old school, where Mike now returns to to help his kids. Ned’s storyline is a little weird, a little flamboyant; however, the payoff is hilarious and almost makes up for the tepid scripting during the rest of the movie. It’s Lennon’s appearance here alone that lifts 17 Again above mere mediocrity and into the realm of averageness.
Generally, though, 17 Again is about as emotionally involving as a hysterectomy. Like a badly written school play, the acting performances from the cast are all over the shop in terms of tone, Efron being the only one who had a genuinely smooth transition as a character. Even ancillary character arcs are strangely mismanaged: there’s no continuity of character at all (save Efrons) and they feels somewhat manufactured to suit each given situation. This strange kind of wibbly-wobbly doesn’t help the film at all, in fact, it alienates the audience to the point of mental apathy. The script tries to be funny, that teenage-angst-layered-with-humor that I find so lamentably stupid. Like somebody typed in “teen speak” into Google and wrote a script from whatever came up. It’s a lazy script, filled with generic ideas and plot devices which on the surface appear amusing and original, but aren’t.
Director Burr Steers has cobbled together an unflattering cinematic style reminiscent of nobody in particular and nothing in general; it’s almost a directorial effort by committee, it’s so unstylish. His camera angles and use of the film medium smacks of delusions of adequacy, a mildly flat effort comprising of various mid-shots and closeups. Steers’ lacks the capacity to engender any emotional hooks with these deeply flawed characters, leaving the film to simply wash over an audience like waves on a beach. It’s stock direction, a label used unflatteringly on Brett Ratner quite a lot on the internet and more appropriate here, I must say.
Look, I know teenage girls are going to flock to this crap like flies on a pig, so there’s probably no way they’ll read and acknowledge anything I write here. For the more discerning viewer, however, you’d be better served by avoiding this film any way you can. Instead, go out and re-watch Big, or the more recent version of Freaky Friday, to get a better serve of body-changing film-making. Those films stand head and shoulders above this effort.