Deja Boo: '17 Again' Familiar And Inferior

April 17, 2009|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

If you've seen Freaky Friday, Vice Versa or even It's a Wonderful Life, you've already seen 17 Again. Except you've seen it done better.

Yet another tale of adults revisiting their youths and becoming better people for it, 17 Again errs not only by covering such well-trod ground, but also by doing so through a main character - played by a game but ill-served Zac Efron - who's about as dense as they come. That makes for a protagonist who's more irritating than amusing, never good news for a comedy.

The setup involves a mystical janitor (Brian Doyle-Murray) who senses that the adult Mike O'Donnell (Matthew Perry) is looking for something in his past. Thus, after O'Donnell falls off a bridge into a river (get the It's a Wonderful Life reference?), he emerges 17 again. (Efron fans might balk at the notion their heartthrob will turn into Perry in 20 years, but that's their problem.)

Of course, this has to have been done for a reason. At first, the newly teenage Mike thinks he has been called upon to help his own kids, Alex (Sterling Knight), a target for every bully in school, and Maggie (Michelle Trachtenberg), an A student aspiring to become a tramp.

Things, however, turn out to be more complicated, especially when teenage Mike keeps coming on to his estranged wife, Scarlett (Leslie Mann, whose appeal works in spite of the film). The two met in high school, and he gave up a promising future in basketball to marry her.

Predictably, much of the movie's humor comes from Mike's attempts to fit in. Not with the teens; he connects with them just fine (are teens of 20 years ago really no different than teens today?). But, in a joke that's beaten until it's dead 17 times over, he has trouble with his family. Of course, Maggie falls for her young dad, and, of course, Mike can't keep his hands off his wife. The ideas are funny once, but they lose their appeal rapidly, especially after it seems Mike should understand how he should be acting.

There's an amusing, if unnecessary, subplot, in which Mike's self-professed dorky friend (Thomas Lennon) cluelessly courts the school's attractive principal (Melora Hardin). And there are moments when Mike's attempts at redemption with his ex-wife display a tenderness and gentle humor the movie would have been wise to stick with.

Historically, films like this have been better (and funnier) when the tables are turned and it's the kid finding himself or herself in a older body - witness Tom Hanks in Big or Jennifer Garner in 13 Going on 30. In the end, 17 Again (not to be confused with 1988's 18 Again !, which starred George Burns) is nothing more than an uninspired riff on a cinematic chord that's been around since our great-grandparents were teenagers.

17 Again * 1/2

(1 1/2 STARS)

(New Line Cinema) Starring Zac Efron, Leslie Mann, Matthew Perry. Directed by Burr Steers. Rated PG-13 for language and sexual references. Time 102 minutes.

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