In 17 Again a mysterious angel asks Matthew Perry if he would be happy turning back the clock, literally going back in time to high school. “Of course I want to live in the past,” he says, “it was better there.”
Was it really, Matthew?
Often Hollywood romanticizes high school, forgetting that for 98 per cent of us it was a gruelling experience. Here’s a list of keywords that popped up when I let my mind drift back to the dark days of secondary education: acne, the strap, swirlies, girls that didn’t look like Vanessa Hudgens or Ashley Tisdale, smelly lockers, pop quizzes and bullies who thought wedgies were the funniest thing since Woody Allen discovered neurosis.
You couldn’t pay me to relive my teen years, but for decades Hollywood screen writers have been fixated on sending people who survived high school (and all the torments listed above) back into the fray as a way of re-examining their lives.
17 Again gets considerable mileage from Zac Efron (as a 37 year-old man in a teenager’s body) trying to navigate the treacherous waters of high school life. Of course in the end he does alright, because, well, he’s Zac Efron and anyone so impeccably coiffed, so perfectly sculpted is probably going to be able to sidestep the pitfalls of hallway culture, but it’s not always easy heading back to class.
Take for instance Back to the Future. When Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) time travels 30 years from 1985 to 1955 he accidentally prevents his parents from meeting, and jeopardizes his own future. Worse than that, he has to deal with bullies who stuff him in the trunk of a car and the mind-bending idea that his future mother “has the hots” for him.
George Burns doesn’t have it much easier in 18 Again. After swapping bodies with his teenaged nephew (Charlie Schlatter) he discovers how tough the younger man has it in school — he’s bullied by his schoolmates and track coach and ignored by the girl of his dreams. Based on Burns’ 1980 country hit single I Wish I Was 18 Again, this one is more punishing than spending Saturday detention with Emilio Estevez.
It’s not all high school horror, however. In Vice Versa, (another of the age switcheroo movies from the late 1980s along with Big, 18 Again and the atrocious Like Father, Like Son) father and son Judge Reinhold and Fred Savage’s minds magically enter each other’s bodies, causing them to swap identities.
This time the father (in his son’s body) uses his business smarts to outwit school yard bullies and finish an exam in only three minutes.
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.