17 Again (2009)

(On TV, March 2015)  “Adults becoming kids” is a surprisingly common trope with well-established elements, so it’s no surprise to find 17 Again trotting over familiar grounds: As an adult filled with regret is magically made 17 again, he gets a chance to make things right with his estranged wife and children… by posing as a mature-beyond-his-years teenager.  The comic possibilities are obvious, and so are the dramatic plot points.  So it’s no surprise that the closer the script sticks to those plot points, the duller the film becomes.  But 17 Again has two or three magical weapons in its inventory, and those end up making the film more worthwhile than you’d think.  The first of those is a willingness to go off-course from time to time, letting go of the obvious story in order to poke at the comic eccentricities of the supporting characters.  The most obvious of those revolve around Thomas Lennon’s geeky Ned character, and a romantic stalking subplot that should have been agonizing but somehow isn’t.  Many of the scenes in 17 Again start out with the obvious, and then veer into something more interesting.  This gives a lot of unevenness to the film, but what ties it together is the film’s biggest strength: Zac Efron, who finds a tricky balance between earnestness and self-confidence.  Anyone who isn’t already a fan is likely to be one by the time the cafeteria taunting scene ends, as if features an amazingly enjoyable bit of motor-mouthing alongside some physical comedy chops.  I’m nowhere near his target audience, but Efron makes the entire film better just by giving a good performance.  It’s good enough to forgive much of the script’s weak spots and uneasy pairing of teen comedy with adult anxieties. (No, but seriously: “adults reliving their childhood” usually carries a lot of mature baggage, and I’m not sure where the ideal audience for these films can be.)  

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