The entries in the Morbid Curiosity Files are a lot like greatness. I don’t mean they’re good, let alone great; I mean that like greatness, there are a number of ways they can come about. Some are “born”, found at random, and catch my attention. Some are achieved, ones I learned about and deliberately sought out because I just had to know. And still others, a very few, are thrust upon me. 17 Again is one such film. I never had any intention of seeing it. If I had come across it at random, as an offering on Hulu or on TV, I would have shook my head and passed it by. But it was given to me, as noted previously, by Flixster. It’s now a permanent part of my UltraViolet collection, whether I want it or not. And since it’s there, I figured I might as well take a look. This is not to say my optimism was ever engaged, however.
The film, released in 2009, and directed by Burr Steers, stars Zac Efron as the young version of main character Mike O’Donnell. This right away raises the question of just who the film was made for. At the time, Efron was largely known for High School Musical, so on that basis one would expect the film’s target market to be girls in their early teens. And yet the themes of the film are about regret, making up for lost chances, and the responsibilities of fatherhood; these themes, particularly that last one, aren’t exactly aimed at young women.
To some extent that’s a problem with virtually any film in the surprisingly-large “second chance at youth” fantasy subgenre. The viewers who are most likely to appreciate the lead actor are, at the same time, the viewers who are least likely to relate to the desire to have a second chance. They don’t need to revisit their youth; they’re in it. Perhaps the film could serve as a warning on what not to do while they have their youth, so as not to need that second chance, but such films seldom succeed on that merit and 17 Again isn’t the exception.
Unless the big lesson here is “don’t dress like a dumbass.”
The film starts with a prologue in 1989, with Mike O’Donnell (Efron), in the final basketball game of his high school career. Right away the film has a bit of a problem in that it’s main character is too much in the extremes of characterization to feel like a real character. As a teenager, he’s too cool for school, Mister Popular, star of the basketball team, defender of the geeks, and the guy who always does the right thing. In this case, this means abandoning the final basketball game mid-game in order to go be with his girlfriend, who has just told him she’s pregnant. He throws away his chance at a college scholarship in order to build a life with her now, instead of… building a life with her and going to college like any number of successful college athletes. Really, it’s kind of a dumb move no matter how you slice it; the film presents it as an either-or situation, but real life shows that it isn’t. Going for both may not be easy, but building a family without a college education isn’t easy either, and the film does play that straight. 17 years later, Mike (played as an adult by Matthew Perry) is in a job where he can’t get promoted due to his lack of education, and resents his lot in life. This resentment has festered and ruined his relationship with his family; his wife Scarlet (Leslie Mann) is divorcing him, and his children Maggie (Michelle Trachtenberg) and Alex (Sterling Knight) don’t want anything to do with him. The too-perfect high school kid has grown up into a too-perfect loser, borrowing a room from his best friend, Ned (Thomas Lennon), a super-rich software developer who is emotionally stunted.
I don’t think there’s anything unhealthy about collecting toys, but I draw the line at sleeping in a Star Wars replica.
Longing for the glory days, Mike returns to his high school to look at the display case with his team’s old trophies. There he meets a janitor, played by Brian Doyle-Murray, who asks if he wishes he could do it all over again. We all know what that means, of course. But 17 Again does play with the idea a bit by not sending Mike back in time… it simply reverts him to being 17 years old in the present. With Ned posing as his father, he enrolls at his old alma mater as a new student, and from there starts learning what his children actually have to deal with. Experiences are had, lessons are learned, etc. Even with the twist that it’s not a literal do-over, it still follows a pretty predictable path.
There are a few laughs along the way, but only a few. There’s a lot of “comedy of the awkward” coming about from Mike having to take classes with his kids (particularly having the same health class with his daughter), and from Ned trying repeatedly to get a date with the school principal (Melora Hardin). There was a brief moment, when Ned first discovers the 17-year-old Mike in his house and thinks he’s an intruder, when I thought the film might be redeemed by being absolutely demented, but this physical comedy sequence is about the only really funny part of the film, aside from a few lines here and there that almost seem out of place for being funny in a otherwise fairly pedestrian film. (And I’ll admit to liking the sight gag in the yearbook-themed credits where the director of photography’s picture isn’t available.)
But it’s only occasional. Most of the time, the awkward humor is just awkward. And the characters are mostly pretty thin, and their behaviors are often hard to believe, such as the basketball coach (Jim Gaffigan) who not once, but twice essentially inspires his best player to blow it through putting too much pressure on him before a big game. (And as these incidents are 17 years apart, it implies he’s been doing this regularly.) Surprisingly Zac Efron does the best job of acting, but this is mostly because there’s simply more meat to his role (and it’s not that he does a great job, just an OK one.) There’s also the question of just what happens after the plot is resolved; either they keep Mike’s transformation a secret from a lot of people, in which case they’ll be wondering what happened to “Mark Gold”, or they let the involved people in on it, in which case they’re going to be even more creeped out than they were before.
Presumably they’ll be relying on the short attention span of teenagers to deal with the fact that several hundred people interacted with “Mark” and have reason to notice he’s missing.
17 Again isn’t actually a bad film, if you’re roped into watching it. But it doesn’t offer anything new, and it doesn’t offer anything that’s particularly well done. If everything had been as absurdly over-the-top as the Ned-Mike fight scene, it probably would have been a better movie, or at least a funnier one. But as it is, it just sits in mediocrity.