Saturday, July 14, 2012

Despite The Obvious Attention To Wholesome, 17 Again Is Worth Watching!

The Good: Funny, Fun, Moments of acting
The Bad: Predictable, Obvious character arcs, Overbearing moralizing, Editing
The Basics: Funny, but poorly edited and assembled for adults who watch such things carefully, 17 Again is still entertaining for a wide audience.

[Note: This was originally written based on a screening of the film in advance of its cinematic release. Hence the verb tenses . . . Enjoy!]

The true joy of free movies has to be that they allow reviewers to take risks they might not otherwise take, namely watching films that are not necessarily their cup of tea. I, for example, have been seeing a lot more "family fare" so far this year largely because I have been getting into screenings. The latest film that I would not have been predisposed to seeing if not for my status as reviewer was 17 Again. Unlike some other risk films I've seen of late, I actually enjoyed the movie quite a bit, despite its formulaic nature and the overbearing "family values" b.s. that I usually despise.

17 Again is the latest vehicle for Zac Efron, whose soul may or may not be owned by Disney and appears as a nonthreatening good guy in this non-Disney (but might as well be) movie. As my partner observed, 17 Again is a great example of a test for the generation divide; our screening was packed by people who were there to see Friends alum Matthew Perry along with a gaggle of tweens who were clearly mooning over Efron. Despite figuring that Perry would not last in the film more than ten minutes early in the movie (he gets about fifteen minutes early on) and about two at the end, my partner and I went enthused to see Perry working again and we were delighted to find there was much more to the movie to enjoy beyond that.

In 1989, Mike O'Donnell is a basketball champion at Hayden High School who is being watched by talent scouts, his entire school and his girlfriend, Scarlett. But when Scarlett gets pregnant, Mike gives up his dreams of playing basketball to go be a responsible father. Twenty years later, Mike is living in his best friend's house when Scarlett throws him out pending their divorce. As Mike mourns his wife wanting to terminate the marriage, he and his geeky best friend try to make the best of things. After visiting his children at their high school, Mike encounters a mystical janitor who he later sees while driving back to Ned's. Trying to follow the janitor, Mike falls into a mystical energy vortex and is suddenly de-aged to seventeen.

Mike enrolls in Hayden High School as Ned's child in order to restart his basketball career and be closer to his children. The seventeen year-old Mike soon realizes his son Alex is being bullied and his daughter, Maggie, is on the fast track to losing her virginity to the school bully. Mike quickly realizes that his purpose in being de-aged is not to take the road not taken - i.e. revitalize his basketball career - but rather to get closer to his children and become a better husband to Scarlett. In the process, Ned begins to court the school principal and Mike relearns all that he might have forgotten about love and relationships.

17 Again is a fun, but sloppy movie that is predicated on the idea that viewers are young and not watching the movie or thinking too closely about it. First, the plot is ridiculously simple and fairly obvious in that the "made young for the purpose of learning a valuable lesson" plot has been done before and the moralizing is pretty obvious. The purpose and character arcs are largely unsurprising and they promote a family-friendly agenda that advocates abstinence, strong family bonds, the value of working at a marriage (no divorce!), and strong, traditional gender roles. Bullies get put in their place, there is a double standard for boys and girls. Despite references to safe sex and pressure for teen sexuality, abstinence is pushed fairly heavily and all teen drinking occurs off-screen and is referenced as such a bad thing that the only characters even accused of it are treated as ridiculous.

The thing is, 17 Again has a few issues within its own narrative that are more ridiculous than the contradictions between reality in teen behavior and the "reality" of the film. So, for example, Mike is 17 in 1989 and today (specifically mentioned as 2009 later in the film), Mike has a daughter who is a Senior in high school and a son who appears to be a Junior at the same high school. Mike's daughter, though, would be 19! Mike references working for the company he works for in the opening scenes for about twenty years, but the idea that his daughter would not be age-appropriate for the storyline is simply glossed over. Also unaddressed is the relationship between the de-aged Mike and Alex; one need not work in high schools to recall that underclassmen and upperclassmen seldom fraternize the way Mike and Alex do, especially at the larger high schools like Hayden High School.

Despite the contradictions and the simplicity - as well as the obvious way Zac Efron is highlighted by appearing on screen for the first five to ten minutes so the tween audience does not have to wait for him any longer than they might want to - 17 Again is a fun and funny movie. It takes a lot to get me to laugh these days, but this film made me laugh out loud fifteen times and smile an additional twenty-two times, which puts it well above most other recent films.

What surprised me most, though, was the quality of the acting. Zac Efron reappears on-screen as the de-aged adult Mike O'Donnell and he plays the role as Matthew Perry for a few minutes as he adjusts from the adult to the teen role once again. Efron almost effortlessly takes on the mannerisms of Matthew Perry which he has in his early scenes. Fans of Perry can see Perry in Efron's performance and that illustrates well the ability the young actor actually has.

The cast is rounded out well by Leslie Mann as Scarlett, Thomas Lennon as Ned and Sterling Night and Michelle Trachtenberg as Mike's son and daughter, Alex and Maggie. Lennon has a decent role as Ned, though much of his performance is upstaged by props and wardrobe used to define his character. Mann, however, utilizes her second billing role to shine and she clearly outperforms the expectations one might have of her from such things as Knocked Up. Problematic, though, is that director Burr Steers cast Mann as Scarlett and Melora Hardin as Principal Masterson, Ned's love interest. Mann and Hardin look far too much alike and are put into virtually identical roles that there are several scenes that the only way the viewer knows which woman is appearing on screen is by who is with her.

Overall, 17 Again is amusing and seems to be lightly PG-13 (I was surprised that it was not PG) and is likely to entertain children, young adults and the middle agers as well. The film is funny and a decent fun date movie, but it is not extraordinary entertainment or thematically clever or super-engaging in a way that older audiences will be blown away by it.

For other works featuring Matthew Perry, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip
The Whole Ten Yards
The West Wing - Season Five
The West Wing - Season Four
The Whole Nine Yards


For other film reviews, be sure to check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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