Saturday, August 15, 2009

On DVD: "17 Again"

On the face of it, there’s little to suggest that 17 Again would prove to be anything more than it is—i.e., a tween-pitched riff on the “body-switching” construct that popped up in so many mid-level comedies during the late 1980s. But one name leapt off the poster: Burr Steers. This is the writer/director who helmed the excellent indie Igby Goes Down in 2002 and pretty much disappeared afterwards (aside from sharing a screenwriting credit on How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days, which I’d like to pretend didn’t happen, and I’m sure Steers shares the sentiment). Alas, this appears to be a paycheck job for the inventive writer/director; 17 Again is a vanilla concoction that never transcends its formulaic roots.

We begin in 1989, as Mike O’Donnell (Zac Efrron) is enjoying the spoils of high-school popularity—he’s got a pretty girlfriend, he’s the star of the basketball team, and he can apparently join the cheerleaders in the middle of a choreographed dance routine right in the middle of a game. (I wish I were making that last one up.) But his girlfriend shows up in the middle of a big game in front of a college recruiter to tell him she’s pregnant (nice timing, hon) and he walks off the court, ready to do the right thing.

Fast forward to twenty years later, as Mike (played as an adult by Matthew Perry) is a miserable wreck—his job stinks, his kids hate him, and his marriage is ending. His wife Scarlett (Leslie Mann) has the expected laundry list of complaints (he resents her, he’s never happy, he never finishes anything, etc), while his kids say that they never see him. He’s been kicked out of the house and is living with his high school buddy Ned (Thomas Lennon), who went from school dork to Internet millionaire.

Then Mike makes a visit to his high school, where a crusty janitor (is there any other kind?) gets him to admit he wishes he could go back and do it all again. Then, faster than you can say “Clarence,” Mike jumps off a bridge to save the janitor from drowning, and wakes up in his 17 year old body. He decides it’s some kind of a mission to help save his kids, so Ned masquerades as his father and gets him enrolled in high school. Hijinks ensue, shenanigans occur, he becomes a better father by getting to know his kids as their peer, and so on and so forth.

Some interesting permutations occur, and I’ll give them this much—at least the film is derivative of multiple sources (the set-up is reverse-Big, the high school scenes are out of Like Father, Like Son, and when his daughter develops a crush on him, all you can think of is Back to the Future). But the screenplay, by Jason Filardi (of Bringing Down the House, unfortunately) doesn’t have any comedic follow-through; he knows construction but not execution. The events onscreen follow a logical progression, but they never build in any way—there’s no momentum, so even the occasional funny line just sort of lays there lifelessly.

The performances aren’t bad. Efron is an actor I’ve heard of (because I live in America and have the Internet) but haven’t seen much of (because I’ve managed to avoid the High School Musical juggernaut); his comic timing could use some sharpening, but he’s pretty decent (particularly, and surprisingly, when he’s required to do some heavy dramatic lifting towards the end of the picture). Lennon (familiar from Reno 911! and I Love You, Man) has been given a total cliché to play, but he brings it off with some gusto; same goes for Nicole Sullivan and Melora Hardin. I’ve got nothing but love for Matthew Perry, but he’s pretty much phoning it in here—it’s a listless, dull-edged performance, though he doesn’t get many funny lines to chew on. However, as she did in Drillbit Taylor, Leslie Mann manages to rise above the mediocrity of the script and deliver a spunky performance, full of spark and life.

The way that Steers and Filardi shifts their weight to Mann and Efron/Perry in the third act helps the overall punch of the film; they finally manage to create some stakes and pull off some of the pathos of the third act, in spite of the diluted nature of what’s come before. But by then, it’s too little, too late.

17 Again is not a terrible movie; indeed, it’s full of likable performances and offers occasional chuckles. But there are no surprises in it. Every beat, every theme, every situation has been done before, many times before, and better. It’s the umpteenth take on material that wasn’t much to start with, so if you’re not a teenage girl (or boy) with an incurable case of Efron fever, there’s not much in the way of diversion for you here.

"17 Again" is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.

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