For years now we've assumed that Zac Efron is a star, because teen girls love him and his movies make money and, my god, those baby blue eyes. But 17 Again marks the first time that assumption has really been tested, Efron's first starring role and first attempt to open a movie all by himself, swinging hips and basketball skills and floppy hair in tow.
Whether or not 17 Again is a hit, it is proof positive of Efron's starpower, a triple-threat dreamboat for a new generation of squealing girls and their equally smitten moms. The 21-year-old High School Musical star coasts charmingly through this by-the-numbers comedy, helping to gloss over the more awkward sections of the script and even some gaping plot holes. It's not technically a good movie, but when Efron is onscreen working his charm on Leslie Mann or palling around with a geeked-out Thomas Lennon, it's almost possible to forget that.
The movie kicks off with a shirtless Efron shooting hoops, as if reassuring tween girls that, even though he's not in High School Musical anymore, he's still the same Zac you've always known. At this point he's Mike in 1989, a basketball star bound for college ball until his girlfriend Scarlett tells him she's pregnant, and he chooses her and the baby over his career. 20 years later Mike (now Matthew Perry, somehow) and Scarlett (now Leslie Mann) are getting a divorce, and we know Mike is unsatisfied with life because he goes around saying things like "You have to understand I am extremely disappointed with my life." (Writer Jason Falardi seems very fond of telling, not showing). Stopping by the old school to think about the glory days, Mike mentions offhand to a magical janitor (isn't there one in every school?) that he wishes he could do it all over again.
And lo and behold, he turns into Zac Efron! Pretending to be the son of his geeky friend Ned (Thomas Lennon, over the top but hilarious), Mike enrolls in his old school and theoretically starts to fix his own life, but actually just winds up meddling with his kids. His daughter (Michelle Trachtenberg) is in love with a mean jock and his son (Sterling Knight) is the school punching bag, so Mike takes it upon himself to be a father to them while also conveniently getting close again to Scarlett, who is fascinated but somehow not concerned by this smooth-talking teenager who looks precisely like her now-missing husband.
There are a lot of small things to enjoy about this section of the film, from the little lectures Mike delivers to who are supposedly his peers to his daughter's attempt to seduce him in a scene that slyly nods to Back to the Future. But given that the point of the movie is for Mike to wind up exactly where he was in the beginning of the film, there's nothing for him to do except gaze longingly at his kids and get all the girls to crush on him. His friend Ned is irritating as he relentlessly woos the school principal (Melora Hardin, doing her Jan from The Office thing), but at least he has goals; Mike may be learning a lot about his kids and his wife, but he never really does develop a personality.
The movie's buoyant comedic tone sometimes seemed strained, tossing in a lightsaber fight and an actual Efron dance number for no real reason other than to keep the audience awake. But some clever zingers and real comedic timing among Mann, Efron and Lennon keeps the whole thing moving well enough, and the serious moments toward the end actually feel earned, if completely expected.
It's inexplicable that 17 Again has such a bad script, given that so many movies have taken basically the exact same formula and become classics. But for what it is, it's more entertaining than it has any right to be, and I don't think I'm just saying that because I was mesmerized by Zac Efron's abs. OK, so maybe I was. But 60% of the audience will be too, and they'll probably have just as much fun as I did seeing it.