17 Again

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Zac Efron wants to break out of his “High School Musical” niche, but apparently not too far out of it. In “17 Again,” he plays a popular, wholesome teenager who’s also the star of the school basketball team. He even dances a little. No singing, though — what, they couldn’t work in a karaoke scene or something?

Very little creative energy was expended in making this film, which is modeled after the body-swapping comedies of the late 1980s (one of which was called “18 Again!”), which in turn were reminiscent of “Freaky Friday” and “Big.” The screenwriter, Jason Filardi — who we can assume is an expert in contrived, formulaic comedy, having also written “Bringing Down the House” — has simply mashed together a series of cliches, and the director, Burr Steers (his first film since his auspicious debut, “Igby Goes Down”), hasn’t done much to improve it.

In the film’s opening sequence, Efron plays Mike O’Donnell, a promising basketball player who, in 1989, while on the verge of getting a scholarship, throws it all away to marry his pregnant girlfriend, Scarlett (Allison Miller). (Welcome to the real world, “High School Musical” fans!) We skip ahead to the present, where Mike and Scarlett are played by Matthew Perry and Leslie Mann, and where they are in the middle of a divorce. Mike has apparently spent their entire marriage complaining about what he missed out on, and Scarlett has finally had enough, kicking him out of the house and forcing him to stay with Ned Gold (Thomas Lennon), his nerdy millionaire best friend.

Then, magically — it doesn’t matter how; just go with it — Mike falls into a river and comes out as a 17-year-old (played again by Efron, of course). He has not gone back in time; he has simply reverse-aged. For some reason, he figures this means he should re-enroll in high school and do things differently this time. Ned, whose life of science-fiction fandom has prepared him for this moment, helps out by posing as Mike’s dad and falsifying some documents of his existence as his son, “Mark Gold.”

As it happens, they all still live in the same city they grew up in, so “Mark” is returning to his alma mater, where his own children are his classmates. Maggie (Michelle Trachtenberg), whose very existence is the reason Mike and Scarlett had to get married in the first place, is a senior. She’s a good kid but has a trashy, douchebag boyfriend named Stan (Hunter Parrish). Her younger brother, Alex (Sterling Knight), wants to follow in his dad’s footsteps by joining the basketball team but is instead the target of bullying and abuse.

You know the drill from here. Posing as the new kid in school, “Mark” spends time with his children and slips them some wise, fatherly advice when they’re not looking. And as Alex’s new friend, he’s able to spend time with Alex’s mom, i.e., his own estranged wife. To the movie’s credit, Scarlett does notice how much her son’s buddy looks like Mike as a teenager. To the movie’s debit, it isn’t until “Mark” has said approximately a thousand things that only Mike could know that she realizes something is amiss.

Efron is gradually establishing himself as a legitimately competent actor, but “17 Again” is beyond his reach. He simply isn’t convincing as an adult trapped in a teenager’s body. He doesn’t get much help from the story’s structure, which gives us only a couple scenes with the adult Mike before he transforms — meaning we don’t have a lot of evidence of how an “adult Mike” acts, and thus can’t find comedy in Efron’s impersonation of it.

Much of the humor relies on Mike getting into situations that are awkward because of his secret status as an adult. A sex-ed lesson in health class, for example, turns into Mike lecturing his fellow students on the benefits of abstinence. It’s awkward, yes — but, crucially, not very funny. If you’re going to make the audience squirm with embarrassment for a character, you need to make them laugh, too. And the film is rife with situations like that, including young “Mark” hitting on Scarlett and, worst of all, the inevitable moment when Maggie — his own daughter — puts the moves on him. Eww.

All of this happens over the course of several weeks. Doesn’t anyone wonder where Mike has disappeared to? I’m just sayin’.

The saving graces are Thomas Lennon as Ned and Melora Hardin as the school principal, whom Ned has a crush on. Their scenes add nothing but padding to the film’s story, yet they’re easily the funniest parts. How can a movie get one thing so right while getting so many others so wrong? That’s the real cosmic mystery here.

(Finally, some nitpicking about the chronology. In one of the 1989 scenes, the basketball coach, played by Jim Gaffigan, calls Mike “Vanilla Ice.” That’s a pretty hip reference, considering Vanilla Ice didn’t become famous until 1990. More importantly, if Scarlett got pregnant with Maggie in early 1989, that would make Maggie almost 20 years old now, and thus not likely still a high school student. In one scene, Mike says it’s been 18 years since he and Scarlett got married; in another, he says 20. I’m guessing the explanation is mundane: The film was supposed to be released a year ago and was probably meant to be set in 2007, not 2009.)

C- (1 hr., 42 min.; PG-13, a little mild profanity, a few relatively tame sexual references.)

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