1988 again?

17 Again
Director: Burr Steers
Screenwriter: Burr Steers
Cast: Zac Efron, Leslie Mann, Thomas Lennon, Matthew Perry, Sterling Knight, Michelle Trachtenberg, Melora Hardin, Jim Gaffigan, Brian Doyle-Murray
Release Date: 2009-04-29
Rated: PG-13
Genre: Film

So, I guess somebody really wanted to stick it to George Burns.

Right?

I mean, what other explanation could there possibly be?

Fine. I’ll allow, for the sake of fair argument, that it’s a striking coincidence — that the person responsible for the title 17 Again hadn’t heard of the similarly themed 1988 Burns/Charlie Schlatter soul-swap comedy 18 Again!, wherein a freewheelin’ 81-year-old and his socially underperforming (and yet, curiously, leading-man handsome) 18-year-old grandson do the Freaky Friday thing. (Or, if you prefer, the Vice Versa or Like Father Like Son thing.) Ask yourself, though: Isn’t it more likely that it’s some manner of nefarious power play, aimed at one-upping everyone’s favorite cigar-gnawing guy-who-played-God on the DVD shelf? Think it over. That exclamation point isn’t much help when the fella to your right boasts a red-hot teen idol, sleeker packaging, and the spot ahead of you in line.

Then again, suppose our mastermind is, in fact, an inveterate fan, with the noble objective of drawing renewed attention to 18 Again! by way of reverent allusion. Hmm. Didn’t consider that, initially. Godspeed.

Which sort of brings me, in customarily roundabout fashion, to the film. How is it? Well, I’ll admit: Between the near-opening shot of a glistening, shirtless Efron nailing three after focused three in a high-school gym (in short order, his coach `Jim Gaffigan` informs him — and us — that a college scout is coming to check out the — ahem — 5-foot, 9-inch phenom) and the protracted, pop-’n’-lock-y, Efron-led halftime dance number, the first 10-or-so minutes of 17 Again had me thinking it was going to be an even worse cinematic experience than that for which my considerable fears had prepared me. At some point thereafter, though, something weird happened. I’m not sure I can quite pinpoint it, but it had something to do with the fact that Thomas Lennon and Leslie Mann showed up (I’ve a sneaking suspicion that at least a few of the film’s best lines may’ve been improvised by the pair), the 22-year-old Efron shouldered up to the task of carrying the film (he ends up proving himself an enjoyable, capable `Tom Cruise-y?` comic lead `see his SNL appearance for more`), and the script supplied enough fresh and funny to offset its not-altogether-inappropriate predictability.

Though the picture’s trailer brings swiftly to mind the aforementioned triumvirate (Vice Versa, Like Father Like Son, 18 Again!) of 1987-88 switcheroo flicks, 17 Again most closely approximates something of a cross between the 1990 Jim Belushi vehicle Mr. Destiny and It’s a Wonderful Life, with maybe a dash of Back to the Future tossed in for flavor. (Two moments, in fact, are so specifically reminiscent of the latter two films, respectively, that they’re either subtle homages or straight-up ripoffs `the former, surely` — watch especially for a spellbinding, infinitely-more-awkward twist on BttF’s Calvin Klein scene.) In short: Movie’s fun. Maybe a bit adult for the little ’uns, a hair teenybopperish in places for anyone looking to dock it for that, seriously bereft of Matthew Perry for those going for him — but fun. It’s light, it’s got its stumbles, but, finally, it fits in nicely with the canon, and I’d be happy to see it again. •

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