The teen dream is a pleasant surprise in a different kind of high school movie.
You needn't be a Zac Efron fan to enjoy the appealing "17 Again." Come to the movie with reservations about his summer-stock acting skills and you may leave impressed with his comedy chops. Is the guy with the Maybelline eyebrows improving, or does the age-reversal movie's lightweight wit make his work seem funnier?
Efron plays Mike O'Donnell, circa 1989. Flashback Mike is a high school basketball star about to be recruited for a college sports career. Mike's a humble hot dog, best friends with the team's nerdy water boy Ned and going steady with Scarlet, the prettiest girl in school. That's the sort of persona Efron knows how to play, a smooth prom king with a heart of gold.
Cut to the present and we meet Mike as he is today: flabby, weary Matthew Perry, Hollywood's poster boy for failed promise. The casting is a clever stroke. The former "Friends" star, once again playing a put-upon good sport, faces his daily hassles with his trademark aggravated smirk. He's disconnected from his kids, losing his marriage, on the outs at work and bunking with Ned, now a tech-geek millionaire who decorates his house like a "Star Wars" set. He'd give anything to start over again, and thanks to a blast of movie magic, he gets to do just that.
Mike returns to high school in the guise of Ned's son and insinuates his way into his kids' lives.
He discovers that distant son Alex is the butt of bullying, and that precious daughter Maggie isn't nearly the innocent girl he thought.
Realizing that he's been a bust as a father and a neglectful husband, he vows to set matters right. He tries to remind Scarlet of why she fell for Mike 20 years earlier, boosts Alex's confidence and schemes to separate Maggie from her obnoxious jock boyfriend. His weapon of choice is his mouth, not his fists -- he's a fast-talking salesman in adult life -- so the school punks routinely beat the living daylights out of him.
The body-switch premise has been done to death, but "17 Again" finds comic Freudian absurdity in Efron's predicament. Scarlet (Leslie Mann) finds this dreamy reincarnation of her schlubby hubby disturbingly hot, and daughter Maggie (Michelle Trachtenberg) wants to be much more than friends. Her baffled response when he rebuffs her advances ("Are you ... confused?") launches a funny rip session about Efron's metrosexual flair.
Mike sacrifices blood, sweat and a chunk of his sanity to rescue his family. In a parallel story, Ned ("Reno 911's" Thomas Lennon), who exhibits all the warning signs of social leprosy, romances the high school's reserved principal (Melora Hardin of "The Office"), who's keeping a few fangirl secrets of her own. It turns out that knowing "The Lord of the Rings" by heart can lead to some interesting real-life role-playing. Battle on, nerds, victory is within your grasp.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186