Having been fired by his boss and his wife, middle-aged sadsack Mike O’Donnell (Matthew Perry) stands before the altar of his high school’s hallway trophy display and entreats the cosmos to restore his youth in 17 Again, a remarkably slipshod reversal of Penny Marshall’s Big that sails quickly past its own magical mumbo-jumbo, which comes down to nothing more than a shitty-looking, swirling vortex that appears wherever and whenever it’s needed, in order to get on with a series of make-swoon vignettes of star Zac Efron tweaking bullies, befriending grateful nerds, and avoiding a pack of voracious girls who chase him around as though he were, well, Zac Efron.
On a mission from the get-go to sell us on its star’s total irresistibility, even at the expense of story coherence, 17 Again initially limits itself to reasonable doses of teen catnip, such as slow-mo montages of Efron strolling along while bedecked in a white tee and aviator glasses, with heads turning in his wake, before eventually hitting blast-off with the reveal that his estranged wife Scarlett (37-year-old Leslie Mann) will remain his love interest in the film, despite the significant age changeup. Although director Burr Steers is too preoccupied with trying to learn how to end scenes without fading to black to exploit the pay-dirt potential of a timely cougar-cub romance, the screen still heats up considerably when Mann and Efron play verbal footsie, toss around MILF jokes, and later share an intimate slow dance, with her attraction passed off as a curiosity over the kid’s (supposed) spooky resemblance to her mysteriously absent and estranged husband.
The State‘s Thomas Lennon is Ned, Mike’s rich friend, privy to his secret and able to absorb it due to his sci-fi geek orientation, which is subtly conveyed by his clip-on Vulcan ears and Star Wars landspeeder bed, and which fuels the film’s mostly tolerable subplot, in which, after helping Mike to enroll in school by posing as his father, he continually tries to date Jane (Melora Hardin), the school principal and a secret geek, despite her persistent refusals. As far as inappropriate relationships go, that one is nothing compared to Mike’s daughter Maggie (Michelle Trachtenberg) developing the hots for him after he successfully weens her off her douchebag boyfriend, a conceit that’s as instantly recognizable as being from Back to the Future as the moment when Mike is knocked out cold and awakens in a darkened room, thinking he’s just had a terrible dream.
When 17 Again isn’t pilfering from its betters, it’s engaging in the most Pavlovian button-pushing, jumping from shots of Mike biting into a Fritos-on-pickles sandwich (eww, gross!) to Mike pulling up to school in his high-performance sports car (ooh, sexy!) to Mike wielding one of Ned’s toy light sabers (aww, dreamy!). Here’s hoping Efron’s agent lands him a real part soon, since even his most ardent fans will soon want more to chew on than his ass.