You could be excused if you experience déjà vu while watching 17 Again. The story, about a depressed 37 year-old man (Matthew Perry) who magically reverts to his 17 year old self (Zac Efron), mixes and matches bits of Back to the Future, Big, Vice Versa and even It’s a Wonderful Life to come up with a plot that is as unimaginative as it is derivative. Luckily it has a secret weapon, and I don’t mean Efron’s abs, which are on display throughout. No, I mean Thomas Lennon, an actor you’ve likely never heard of unless you stayed up late and watched Reno 911 on cable television.
When the movie begins it is 1989 and Mike O’Donnell (Efron) is at the top of his game. He rules the basketball court, has a line on a university scholarship and goes out with Scarlett, the prettiest girl in school. He’s 17 and has the world by the tail. Everything changes when Scarlett gets pregnant and he chooses to give up everything to be with her. Twenty years later Mike (now played by Perry) is a pudgy, unhappy mid-level executive, alienated from his kids, on the verge of a divorce from Scarlett and about to be passed over for yet another promotion. Kicked out of the house he’s rooming with his best friend, the impossibly rich, but impossibly nerdy Ned (Thomas Lennon). “Of course I want to live in the past,” he tells a mysterious janitor / angel at his former school, “it was better there.” Fate gives Mike a second chance at happiness when he is astonishingly transformed back to the age of 17 (back to Efron). Will his trip back in time give him some perspective on life, or will he simply try to relive his best years?
17 Again is High School Musical star Efron’s first move from juvenile roles to young adult parts on his way to an adult career. He’s been quoted as saying that this role was a stretch for him because he had to play a 37 year old, but while he’s an agreeable screen presence in that shiny toothed teen idol way but doesn’t show any more range here than he did in the HSMs. He carries most of the movie and he’s the guy 99% of the audience is going to pay to see but the movie would be much less enjoyable without the unhinged comic presence of Thomas Lennon.
As Ned, former high school nerd—“a good day was when I didn’t get my head dunked in the toilet”—turned soft ware millionaire nerd. He’s the ultimate fanboy with a house full of light sabers, LOTR shields, comics wrapped in acid free plastic sleeves and a bed shaped like a space ship. He’s an outrageous character and Lennon doesn’t shy away from any opportunity to get a laugh, but his larger-than-life portrayal gives the movie some much need steam and cuts through the more predictable aspects of the story.
Chandler Bing… er… Matthew Perry is essentially playing his familiar character from Friends in what is really little more than an extended cameo. His appearances bookend the film and he disappears completely for more than an hour of the film’s 102 minute running time.
17 Again is an amiable movie that tries hard to please everyone, from the teens who have followed Efron from his HSM days—there’s even a short dance number or two—to the couples that may be drawn by the love story, but apart from Lennon’s gags and, for some, Efron’s abs, it was more enjoyable the first few times around when it was called Back to the Future. Or Vice Versa. Or It’s a Wonderful Life.
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