Zac Efron, looking cool, is movie enough for the makers of "17 Again," a halfhearted fantasy that stars Efron in a role cryogenically frozen around the time of C. Thomas Howell's '80s heyday. He plays a high school basketball star who has everything going for him. His college sports career gets derailed by his girlfriend's unplanned pregnancy. This 1989 prologue doesn't last long, but the Boy George and Vanilla Ice references are intense.
Twenty bittersweet years later, Efron's Mike O'Donnell has turned into a defeatist schlump played by Matthew Perry, who peddles erectile dysfunction pills for his drug company and devoutly wishes to return to his teen glory days and change a few things. Up pops a magical whiskered janitor played by Brian Doyle-Murray, who zaps Mike back into his younger self (Efron). Though a dork inside, he's mack-worthy Zac on the outside, infiltrating his kids' classes under a transfer-student guise.
At one point, because the film is intent on the yummification of its star, Mike -- a near-middle-ager in the body of a 17-year-old -- finds himself in a sticky situation with his daughter (Michelle Trachtenberg). This film's target audience wasn't born when "Back to the Future" came out, but some of you village elders may remember Lea Thompson's character giving Michael J. Fox's the Oedipal willies. A comparable scene in "17 Again," which is full of scenes disadvantageously similar to scenes in other films, had the kids squirming and "eeeeewwwwing!" like crazy.
What they weren't doing was laughing much. The movie, which makes high school seem only slightly less grim than "Lord of the Flies," tries to deal with teen sexuality and social pressures, but it's the same old song, sung out of key. The standard venal cliques are in place. If a film recycles images of the psychopathic jock boyfriend with the soul of a date rapist, or the Bratz-knockoff slutettes setting the fashion standard for the girls, at some point it risks not just reusing and commenting on these tropes but reinforcing them.
The movie's heart, of course, is with poor addled Mike and his kids, but "17 Again" works only fitfully to make the Efron-Perry character worth a story. I enjoyed Leslie Mann as Mike's neglected wife, puzzled about why she's repelled/attracted by her son's charismatic friend who keeps coming around to help with chores. But just as Mann was too good for "Drillbit Taylor," she's too good for this. Efron's fans may enjoy the film, simply because Their Guy is in it and he dances a little. However, younger admirers of the "High School Musical" movies are likely to ask a lot of questions, out loud.
They certainly were at the promotional screening I attended. "Mom, what's going on?" "Mom, what's a condom?" Call the "High School Musical" films what you will, but they aren't conflicted about who their audience is.
"17 Again," directed with a heavy hand by Burr Steers (who wrote and directed the "Rushmore" knockoff "Igby Goes Down"), pulls a laugh or two out of Thomas Lennon as Mike's smarmy, socially maladroit pal, Ned. But one or two isn't many, and on the whole I'd rather watch George Burns and Charlie Schlatter in "18 Again!" again.