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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"17 AGAIN"


 
17 Again is a movie that very pleasantly snuck up on me. The film, on DVD August 11, stars Zac Efron, who is a talented young actor but carries the kind of teenybopper baggage that's inclined to make adults run for the hills. Toss in the fact that this is another body-swap movie in the same vain as Freaky Friday, Big, Vice Versa and the similarly-titled George Burns clunker 18 Again, and there's little reason to believe the film will appeal to anyone who is not a pre-adolescent girl. But guess what - 17 Again is actually really fun. If you took a pass when it was in theaters (as I guiltily confess I did), DVD is a great chance to rectify the situation.

Matthew Perry plays Mike O'Donnell a 40-ish guy who is separated from his wife Scarlett (Leslie Mann) and nearly estranged from his teenage children. Once upon a time, Mike was a high school basketball star who would have had an all-expenses paid college scholarship had he not thrown it all away after getting Scarlett pregnant. (He feels he threw it away, not me, just for the record.) He's been miserable ever since, feeling like nothing in his life has worked out the way he intended. One day, Mike has a chance encounter with a guy who appears to be a school janitor. He confesses his woes, then sees the janitor attempting to jump from a bridge later that night. Running over to rescue him, Mike falls into some kind of vortex and awakens the next morning to discover that he's reverted to his 17 year-old self, now played by Efron.

I know - this sounds stupid. But I promise, this is where 17 Again gets good.

Mike is able to convince his rich best friend/professional fanboy Ned (Thomas Lennon) of his circumstance. To help him get a lifetime "do-over," Ned poses as Mike's father and enrolls him in high school under the name "Mark." Suddenly, Mike/Mark is sitting in class alongside daughter Maggie (Michelle Trachtenberg), who is bring pressured to lose her virginity by her boyfriend, who also happens to be the class jerk. He also discovers that his son, Alex (Sterling Knight), is having trouble fitting in and is enduring abuse from some of his bullying classmates. This is, of course, a chance for him to help his kids in a way he was never quite able to do as an adult. Then there's Scarlett, who is struck by how much Alex's new friend looks like her husband did as a teen. They begin what appears to everyone else to be a very age-inappropriate flirtation, but which is really Mike's attempt to win back the love of his life.

There are a few things here that you have to look past, starting with the fact that Matthew Perry and Zac Efron look nothing like each other. I'm roughly the same age as Mike O'Donnell. Look at my senior class picture and, dorky glasses and haircut aside, it's still clearly me. Apparently, Mike undergoes a complete facial reconstruction over the years following graduation. The whole body-swapping thing also requires the requisite suspension of disbelief, especially since the magical janitor is never explained.

If you can get beyond those things, there is much to enjoy in 17 Again. While it's not in the same classic league, the movie has a nice Back to the Future vibe to it. What I mean is that it's more than just a movie about a grown-up acting like a kid. Because of his predicament, Mike encounters his family members in a new way, much like Marty McFly did, and is able to affect their lives from a new vantage point. Consider Maggie, who initially doesn't understand why this new kid in school is so adamant about her not giving it up to her boyfriend; eventually, she realizes that his advice is actually pretty practical. There's additionally something amusing about watching a teenage guy romance his adult wife. Only by reconnecting with his past is Mike able to remember what it was he appreciated so much about Scarlett to begin with. Of course, to everyone else, it looks like she's suddenly becoming a cougar.

17 Again mines a lot of laughs from the situations, yet also plays them with emotional honesty. The body swap isn't a gimmick, but rather an entertaining means for the character to reassess his own life. Zac Efron really sells it. He sure looks like a teen, yet manages to capture just the right notes of parental concern and authority. I love the moment where he forgets that he's a teenager once more and starts lecturing Maggie like a dad. Say what you want about Efron's teen dream status; he's a charismatic actor with solid comedic chops and ability to play the range of this character.

Much credit also goes to Thomas Lennon ("Reno 911") who earns continual laughs as the eccentric best friend. Ned is an overgrown man-child with a house full of Star Wars toys and a crush on the school principal (Melora Hardin of "The Office"). Ned serves as a counterpoint to Mike. Whereas Mike is an adult in an adolescent's body, Ned is a suspended adolescent in an adult's body.

Sure, it's not hard to see where 17 Again is going, long before it gets there, but so what? It's funnier than you'd expect, more heartwarming than you'd anticipate, and more fun than it really ought to be. This is a very, very, very nice surprise.

( out of four)

DVD Features:

17 Again hits DVD on August 11, with both widescreen and fullscreen formats on the same disc. Picture and sound quality are exceptional. There are no bonus features on the DVD, although the Blu-Ray is scheduled to have outtakes, deleted scenes, a trivia track, and cast reflections on their own teen years. I understand the business model that leads to studios saving their bonus material for the more expensive Blu-Ray format, but it's a shame that these extras cannot be made to the DVD audience as well.


17 Again is rated PG-13 for language, some sexual material and teen partying . The running time is 1 hour and 43 minutes.

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