Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
May 2009

Little big man

Strong performances nearly salvage uninspired screenplay in '17 Again'

17 Again
New Line Cinema
Director: Burr Steers
Screenplay: Jason Filardi
Starring: Zac Efron, Leslie Mann, Thomas Lennon, Sterling Knight, Michelle Trachtenberg, Hunter Parrish and Matthew Perry
Opened April 17, 2009
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 42 minutes
(out of four)

I was wondering what happened to Burr Steers. Seven years ago, he presented his debut feature, Igby Goes Down, an impressive Catcher in the Rye-esque coming-of-age tale starring Kieran Culkin and a host of well-known character actors.

Since then, he's been virtually out of sight, only to make his return behind the camera of a dopey rom-com with the kid from High School Musical. I can't know what explains his dry spell - either bad luck or a willing inclination to take the step from a promising and personal indie feature to . . . well, 17 Again. (I smell a Kate Hudson movie in his future.) Steers certainly wouldn't be the first promising young filmmaker to get chewed up and reduced to shopworn, impersonal fare like this. Justin Lin springs to mind.

But enough about the system - let's focus on 17 Again, a sort of reverse Big meets Back to the Future meets It's a Wonderful Life meets, uh, Teen Wolf, I guess. I say that mostly because basketball is involved, and because the playing of the sport itself is equally implausible in both films.

That, and both films feature a cringe-worthy scene involving an impromptu dance number - Michael J. Fox on top of a moving vehicle in full wolf regalia in the one, and Zac Efron in an inexplicable choreographed dance number with the cheerleaders moments before the Big Game in the other.

But the real problem with 17 Again is it doesn't have the earnestness or honest charm that most of those other examples had in spades. Its main character, Mike O'Connell, is not just flawed or foolish, but a virtually indefensible fool. He is not worthy of the second chance that has been bestowed upon him. He's a third-rate husband and father who, when he undergoes a metamorphosis that turns him back into his 17-year-old self - but in modern day - hasn't even the most basic of common-sense skills. It might be funny if it weren't so pathetic.

Mike has gotten this second chance because his wife (Leslie Mann) kicked him out of the house. He's been moping, you see, for just about the entirety of their 20-year marriage - moping about the fact that he gave up a basketball scholarship to marry his pregnant high-school sweetheart, moping about his inability to get a promotion at his job, moping about what could have been. And so, with the help of a helpful janitor/angel, he turns back the clock - transforming from his 40-ish Matthew Perry self to his former teenage self, in the form of Zac Efron.

Helping him along the way is his wealthy best friend, Ned (Thomas Lennon), who poses as his father. His objective? To fraternize with his daughter Maggie (Michelle Trachtenberg) and son Alex (Sterling Knight) as the New Kid in school and secretly try to repair the ruins of his marriage.

It's all easy enough, of course - and the principal actors pull it off with grace and aplomb, though the screenplay doesn't do them many favors. Efron is an affable and charming lead (much more interesting than the wholly forgettable Perry) and Mann - who many will remember in The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up - carries a half-written role farther than it deserves.

Once we get into the plot, the film seems to run on a constant loop of three scenarios - the old guy in a young body awkwardly trying to impart an important lesson to his new classmates; the old guy in a young body awkwardly trying to win back his wife, who is naturally taken aback by this new kid's resemblance to her husband; and the disconnected subplot of Ned trying to woo Principal Masterson (Melora Hardin).

Through all that, Mike, his wife and his kids are all supposed to see everything through a new light, everything is supposed to work out, and of course the janitor/angel will get his wings. Problem is, 17 Again makes leaps of logic and motivation that it simply never earns. Worst of all, Mike doesn't earn it - if it's such a wonderful life, he should have done a better job saving it.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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