It would be easy enough to lump Zac Efron into the here-today-gone-tomorrow ranks of Disney pre-teen idols (and he may have to cameo in High School Musical sequels until he’s Ian Ziering’s age), but it wouldn’t be right. Look past the soft eyes and Teen Beat-foldout coiffure (though really, why would you?) and Efron is a serious talent, equally agile in dance and slapstick while bringing a theatrical zip to every scene. It’s uncertain yet whether he can dial it down for a genre other than musicals or comedy, but he’s right there to pick up the daffy body-swapping farce 17 Again whenever it goes astray. And for a seemingly surefire mash-up of commercial juggernauts like Big and Back To The Future, the film needs a lot of rescuing.
Following the tradition of bad late-’80s comedies like Vice Versa, Like Father Like Son, and, ahem, 18 Again!—and their slightly improved ’00 counterparts Freaky Friday and 13 Going On 30—17 Again uses Hollywood magic to put an old soul in a younger body. As the film opens, Efron is a star high-school basketball player who leaves the game behind when he finds out his girlfriend is pregnant and commits to her on the spot. Twenty years later, this dynamic young man has morphed into a defeated sad-sack (Matthew Perry) who has squandered his marriage to wife Leslie Mann and alienated himself from his two teenage children. When a janitorial “spirit guide” gives him a chance to revisit his youth and realize the dreams he left behind in high school, Efron instead uses the opportunity to get his family back on track.
With plenty of help from a fine supporting cast, including Thomas Lennon as his obscenely wealthy super-nerd chum and Melora Hardin as the school principal, Efron deftly handles the fish-out-of-water hijinks and slips through more icky May-September romantic entanglements than an average season of Friday Night Lights. Director Burr Steers (Igby Goes Down) doesn’t always have a firm handle on what is and isn’t appropriate; the film makes a few sharp detours into misogyny, and the level of smuttiness is surprisingly high, which may be a function of Efron wanting to grow away from his core audience too fast. If he keeps sailing through star vehicles like this one, he should have no trouble growing up with them.