If you could live your life all over again, would you do anything differently? Is there a crucial, life-altering moment in your past that you would like to revisit? And, if you could, would you? Should you? Burr Steers’ 17 Again is the latest film to ask these admittedly tired questions, and to explore themes that have been explored many times before, brilliantly (It’s A Wonderful Life), entertainingly (Back To The Future and Big) and quite ineptly (Family Man). This latest attempt falls somewhere between the second and third categories.
In 1989, 17-year-old Mike O’Donnell (Zac Efron) is a well-liked and handsome student at Hayden High School, who, in a pivotal basketball game watched by college scouts, sacrifices his hopes and dreams by leaving the game mid-way through to chase after his pregnant girlfriend and future wife, Scarlett. Twenty years later, Mike (now played by Matthew Perry) and his once-doting spouse (Leslie Mann) are ready for a divorce, a promotion is denied him in favor of a much-less experienced colleague, and he finds his two kids remote and unloving. During a nostalgic visit to the halls of Hayden High, Mike comes upon an elderly janitor who claims to remember him. The janitor asks Mike if he wishes he could “do it all over again,” and Mike answers with a resounding, impassioned “yes.” Hours later, Mike is 17 again. With the help of his mega-nerdy best friend Ned (Thomas Lennon), who collects life-sized Darth Vaders as a hobby, Mike re-enrolls at Hayden. There, he learns more about his two kids, Alex (Sterling Knight) and Maggie (Michelle Trachtenberg), and how to be a better father, as he changes his entire philosophy on life from cynical to optimistic.
17 Again starts off slowly, with an all-too-familiar plot and Perry in the lead — let’s face it, Perry has nothing on Jimmy Stewart (or Fox and Hanks, for that matter). But things pick up when Efron enters the picture, and once all the pesky exposition is out of the way. Efron and the other actors are surprisingly effective in their respective roles, and, although occasionally too sappy, the message at the heart of 17 Again (the importance of family and how love prospers within with structure) is ultimately inoffensively winning. It’s an honest message, even if entirely basic and overly familiar, and Efron executes it all with a surprising sensitivity and charm that makes it seem fresher than it is. The comedic moments are the film’s strongest; Zac Efron (of High School Musical fame) is a legitimately gifted comedian, and here he proves he can competently carry a film with his winning charisma. As one would expect, 17 Again is achingly predictable: everything is back to normal, all problems resolved, and the characters have learned their lessons by the end. But thanks to Efron and strong supporting work from Lennon and Mann, the film leaves a lasting impression, so much so that many a grump will enjoy it, even if they never tell a soul.