This much is for sure about the makers of the new Zac Efron picture 17 Again: They know their audience. Scientifically engineered for maximum shriek-and-squeal value among Efron's legion of distaff tween fans (and no small number of lonelyheart cougars and gay men), the movie opens on His Zackness's sweaty, shirtless torso glistening under the lights of a high school gymnasium, as his character, 17-year-old basketball phenom Mike O'Donnell, practices his jump shot before a big game. This is quickly followed by a scene of Efron/O'Donnell busting an impromptu move with the cheerleading squad, shaking his metrosexual booty for all it's worth — which, judging by the combined grosses of Hairspray and the High School Musical franchise, is considerable.
The year is 1989, and O'Donnell seems to be living a gilded existence, with college scouts on his back and the prettiest girl in school on his arm — until, moments before the game, fair Scarlet tells him she's pregnant with their baby, causing Mike to throw up a brick on the court and squander his shot at college hoops. The more crushing blow, however, may be the one that this Warner Bros. movie deals to the Disney executives who have so carefully sculpted Efron into an icon of chaste, non-threatening masculinity on par with the brothers Jonas. Evidently, all the prerelease publicity positioning 17 Again as Efron's first "grown-up" movie was about one thing: He has finally been allowed to grow a phallus.
This, alas, is the only novel or transgressive touch to be found in 17 Again, a reverse-engineered Big in which O'Donnell (played as an adult by erstwhile Friend Matthew Perry) gets a chance to revisit his adolescent glory days in his glorious, adolescent body. The point, of course, is that Mike has been psychologically stuck in high school mode for the last 20 years anyway — an unhung hammock and a half-built barbecue pit are among the Freudian evidence of a chronic inability to make good on his ambitions. When we first meet grown-up Mike, he's at the brink of divorce from the adult Scarlet (Leslie Mann) and estranged from his two moody teenagers (Michelle Trachtenberg and Sterling Knight). Then fate intervenes in the form of a fairy godjanitor (Brian Doyle-Murray), who sprinkles a little hocus-pocus on a despondent Mike, bringing the movie's title to fruition and restoring Efron to the fore.
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Mike doesn't literally travel back in time like the title character in Francis Ford Coppola's Peggy Sue Got Married, thereby sparing screenwriter Jason Filardi and director Burr Steers from having to navigate any of the emotional landmines that might come with being young again (like reliving doomed relationships and re-encountering dead friends and relatives). Nor does Mike have to labor much to convince lifelong pal Ned (Thomas Lennon) of his predicament, since Ned — a millionaire software developer/sci-fi geek living in his own state of arrested development — isn't the sort to question a sudden episode of bodily transmutation. So with Ned posing as his father, Mike enrolls at the local high school, where he sets about righting the wrongs of his past, while trying to deter his own children from following in his footsteps.
This isn't the first time that Steers has plumbed the depths of postpubescent awkwardness on screen. But whereas his 2002 debut feature, the insipid Catcher in the Rye knockoff Igby Goes Down, aimed for art-house credibility, 17 Again finds Steers embracing his inner sitcom director; the garishly lit, poorly framed images seem to have been enlarged against their will to fill the cinema screen, while Rolfe Kent's incessantly antic, brassy score is the musical equivalent of a laugh track. The aesthetic crassness is a natural fit for Filardi's screenplay, which fastens together scraps of many a duly forgotten 1980s body-switching comedy (Like Father Like Son, anyone?) with reams of below-grade-level dialogue. The high school itself is more Saved by the Bell than John Hughes, with crowds of badly directed, Sunday-supplement extras flaunting cell phones as if they were extraterrestrial communicators, and a tattooed, beady-eyed, alpha-male bully who looks more like a Rikers Island lifer than a 12th-grade jock.
All this is but the window dressing, however, for 17 Again's squirm-inducing coup de grace — the courtship of the thirtysomething Scarlet by the teenaged Mike, the smarminess of which is less about the intimations of statutory rape than the humiliating way Mann (who doesn't realize that the boy is really her soon-to-be ex) is made to prowl around Efron as though he were a fresh piece of loin. Those scenes are in line with the movie's generally hateful attitude toward women young and old — something one wonders if the movie's target viewers will be ruffled by or blithely ignore — who are uniformly portrayed as ball-busting shrews, frigid ice queens or hot-to-trot vixens. In one inevitable scene, Mike is nearly seduced by his own daughter. In another, three teen vamps proposition him by promising that he doesn't even have to remember their names.
Efron is, to put it mildly, the least of the movie's problems. Nuance may not be his strong suit, and he never gives himself over to the part physically, the way Jamie Lee Curtis did as the girl-woman of Freaky Friday, but he plays most of the big moments well enough (verbally cutting down a bully in the cafeteria, preaching abstinence in a sex-ed class), and seems altogether more at ease than he does doing 1930s dress-up in Richard Linklater's forthcoming Me and Orson Welles. But if this is one small step for the actor toward becoming a leading man, it is, for Hollywood movies, one more giant leap into infantilism.