By Si Lewis.
First of all, I would like to say that I have never seen any of the High School Musical, well…Musicals, nor do I want to anytime soon. I have never had any interest whatsoever in the progression of a narrative told in the form of song and/or dance. I found Grease to be an awful attempt at candy coating George Lucas’s sublime American Graffiti (a film I still view as Lucas’s best film), The Sound Of Music took a brilliant story and bastardised a wartime drama by amplifying bold colours and adding jolly (and slightly inappropriate) musical nuances at every opportunity and I see Andrew Lloyd Webber as the devil incarnate and Tim Rice his evil minion. As a result, my preconceptions of Zac Efron were a little harsh formed solely upon his musical roots. In his first genuine foray into cinema, minus the backing of Mickey Mouse, I expected him to be an absolute cheeseball coated in candy floss. What I saw however was a young man who is so damn likable, his very presence on screen can’t help but evoke a smile. The guy has charisma to the eyeballs and there is simply nothing to dislike about him, his simple yet humorous performance is an honest and worthwhile entry into acting sans the singing.
Efron is Mike O’Donnell, a high school student with everything a 17 year old could ask for; the looks, the beautiful girlfriend, the sporting ability and the popularity. There’s no doubt the opening to 17 again is an obvious nod to his High School Musical persona. Everything is as schmaltzy as the character that made him a star, even down to the exaggerated mannerisms and cheese filled dancing. Things quickly turn real for Mike however, when his girlfriend tells him shes pregnant. His perfect High School Musical-esque life loses it’s gloss as he’s forced to make a tough choice. Fast forward 20 years, Mike now looks like Chandler Bing and sells Viagra for a living. It’s fair to say his life went a little downhill as his wife and kids hate him almost as much as he hates himself for sacrificing his basketball career and the chance of a perfect life. After a chance meeting with a jolly bearded janitor, O’Donnell senior rather clumsily falls into a river and returns looking as he did 20 years previous. Thus begins Mike’s second chance at being a teenager.
There is the feeling of a teenage film checklist in full effect in 17 Again. Everything often present in characterisation is there; the popular kid, the geeky mate, the rebellious teen, the timid boy and the bully all make an appearance but what makes 17 Again different is the genuinely believable and modern interpretation of each. As mentioned, Efron is utterly lovable in the lead role. Sure he’s very camp and over enthusiastic in his 80s incarnation but it certainly seems that’s what he and Burr Steers were aiming for. Efron in the 80s is quite clearly Efron in High School Musical, so when his return in the 00s is performed with maturity in more of a reality, it seems Efron is sending a message that he is a lot more than a child actor who can dance and sing. Fair enough this message is a little suffocated amongst familiar Efron affair but you have to give him credit for trying. A lot of the humour does come from Efron himself, which is made all the more funny because it’s such a surprise.
One particular scene where he roasts the bully with his older year intelligence is superbly delivered with a certain cockiness akin to that of the Apatow crowd. His first attempt at fitting in with the current crop of kids citing Kevin Federline as an influence is also a worthy attempt to coach out a few giggles. The humour never really breaks into adult territory using such a generic mix of characters and plot devices but hearing a child icon say the word “douche” is always funny, if a little surprising. The bulk of the laughs however, do come from Mike’s best friend Ned played with embarrassing gusto by Thomas Lennon. Their double act is simply the funniest part of the film. Despite their obvious age difference, Lennon and Efron are completely convincing as life long friends and despite the fact that the laughter never reaches the height of a Rogen and Rudd partnership, the on-screen chemistry consistently works. While occasionally immature, it is essentially a teenage film after all, the comedy level is kept at a worthy height whenever Lennon is on screen, particularly in his desperate attempts to gain the affections of the school principal. Unfortunately, the comedy begins and ends with the Lennon/Efron partnership. Everything else seems a little drab and the inclusion of both Matthew Perry and Leslie Mann (as Mike’s wife) seems like a desperate attempt to get instant comedic kudos while never actually giving them anything to be comedic about. Particularly Mann who is only in the film because of her Apatow starring roots. I never found Mann particularly likable in recent roles so sympathy for Mrs O’Donnell is completely lost when she seems like a nightmare wife. Things of course delve into the realm of awkwardness when a 17 year old Mike rekindles his love for his wife and his daughter finds an attraction to his 17 year old persona. This is all well and good but it all seems a bit contrived when no one, not even his wife, recognise him!!! Surely they have pictures around the house?!
It’s fairly obvious where the narrative heads as the charming, if recycled, story unfolds. But I don’t think anyone should be expecting Citizen Kane or a deep exploration of social commentary, so if you leave your head at the door you’re likely to leave satisfied while never really being overwhelmed. I am not going to lie, I am not worried about losing credibility amongst my film going friends but I actually enjoyed 17 Again. I like comedies with heart, and frankly I am bored with the gross out humour that littered teenage films of the past decade such as American Pie and what it lacks in freshness, it more than makes up for in charm, wit and personality.
It hardly brings anything new to the spring cinema picnic; Big, 13 Going On 30,Freaky Friday, Vice Versa and 17 Again have all played in the field of child/adult transformations. Big being the undoubted epitome of how to do it right, the rest are simply the same story given a new lick of paint with actors who the kids of the time are creaming over and on the surface, that’s exactly what 17 Again does. To choose Efron is an obvious choice, his boyish good looks are a good enough vehicle to shift tickets to swooning females and their boyfriends who get dragged along. But despite the rehashed and somewhat exhausted narrative, 17 Again manages to emulate the charm of Big, leaves the campness in the past and has the potential to make Zac Efron an even bigger star.
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