"I wish I was eighteen again,
And going where I've never been.
But old folks and old oaks
Standing tall just pretend,
I wish I was eighteen again."
Pretend that seventeen and eighteen years old are close enough and that the old Jerry Lee Lewis/George Burns/Slim Whitman song didn't happen. Pretend that you never saw or never heard of either of the "Freaky Friday" flicks, "Big" with Tom Hanks, or any other growing-younger or personality-switch movies. If you can do that, you'll have a pretty good chance of liking the 2009 fantasy comedy "17 Again." It's harmless enough, if rather predictable and safe.
The story begins in 1989. Mike McDonnell (Zac Efron) is a senior in high school, the star player on his school's basketball team, expecting to get a scholarship to a major university, and dating Scarlett (Allison Miller), the cutest girl in town. Life is good. Then, just before the big game, with college scouts in the audience, Scarlett tells Mike that she's pregnant, and his whole life changes.
Flash forward twenty years. Mike (played as an adult by Matthew Perry) never got the scholarship and never went to college, his wife Scarlett (played as an adult by Leslie Mann) has just kicked him out of the house, his two teenage kids want nothing to do with him, and his boss has passed him over for a promotion. Life is not so good. Where did he go wrong? Ah, he thinks, if only he could go back and do it all over again.
Here we enter "It's a Wonderful Life" territory, complete with a magical school janitor (Brian Doyle-Murray), a "spirit guide," to replace Clarence the angel. And the next thing we know, Mike is seventeen again.
The thing is, it's not 1989. It's still 2009. It's just that Mike is seventeen, with a thirty-seven-year-old's mind and memory. What to do? He enlists the aid of his best friend, whom he's known since childhood, Ned Gold (Thomas Lennon), a nerd who became super rich in the software business. Ned's still a dork, living alone, playing video games, and immersing himself in everything fantastical. He's a hard-core "Star Wars" and "Lord of the Rings" fan, naturally, and everything in his house reflects it. Frankly, he's the best thing in the movie; exaggerated, to be sure, but so eccentrically overstated that he's quite often more interesting than the main character.
Nobody recognizes the teenage Mike as the older Mike, since that would be crazy. However, because Ned understands about supernatural stuff, he accepts that Mike has become suddenly younger and agrees to pretend being Mike's dad; together they enroll Mike in high school, where Ned immediately falls for the straightlaced, unattached principal, Jane Masterson (Melora Hardin). The highlight of the film comes during a restaurant scene between Ned and Jane, a special, enchanting moment for which we can only have wished for more.
Now, what do you mean, Does Mike learn a lesson and set his life straight? It's a Hollywood comedy, isn't it? The movie may be from New Line, but Disney could have made it. With director Burr Steers ("Igby Goes Down") at the helm, Zac Efron ("Hollywood Musical," "Hairspray") in the lead, and actor Thomas Lennon in support, the film manages to make more of its flimsy premise than one might suppose possible.
Mike attempts to bond with his son (Sterling Knight), keep his daughter (Michelle Trachtenberg) away from a total moron boyfriend, and fix things up with his wife. The situation comes close to creepy weird when the teenage Mike tries to kiss his much-older and unknowing spouse and when his teenage daughter starts to find him attractive, but these are innocent enough encounters.
The main thing is that the movie picks up steam as it goes along. By the second half, its characters, messages, and situations settle into a more-mature and less-inflated state, bringing a few humorous junctures with them. "17 Again" is not particularly a laugh-out-loud comedy, but it is a gently amusing one.
If the filmmakers had produced the film in the 1980's, it would no doubt have starred Michael J. Fox. Not only does Zac Efron resemble Fox, he acts like him. And "17 Again" is as innocuous as any movie or TV show Michael J. Fox ever made early on. It really is a kind of time warp, and not a wholly unpleasant one.
New Line engineers present the film in two standard-definition formats, widescreen and full-screen on the same side of the disc. The full-screen, 1.33:1 version, is a pan-and-scan affair that cuts off nearly half the image's width left and right, while the widescreen offers the film in its original theatrical-release aspect ratio of 2.40:1, providing a lot more to see. Colors are fairly deep and rich, although they are also a trifle too dark. Definition is quite soft most of the time and sometimes even blurry, masking a good deal of detail. Yet when it's good, it can be vividly so; go figure. As with many new movies, the screen is quite clean, perhaps too much so, giving the image a somewhat two-dimensional quality. For a modern, lightweight comedy, though, it all works well enough.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track is surprisingly good when it wants to be, producing an adequate bass and wide dynamics. Understandably, most of the movie contains little more than dialogue. Nevertheless, musical background numbers comes across with zest, and on occasion the surrounds exhibit some fine environmental sounds. The overall sonic impression is somewhat forward and bright, but it's not unlike most movie soundtracks. While I was not expecting much from it, the audio turned out to be agreeably alive.
Basically, there are no extras, unless you count getting the widescreen and full-screen versions of the movie on a single disc. Otherwise, you'll find twenty-four scene selections; several trailers at start-up; English as the only spoken language; Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
After more than a hundred years of screen comedies, it must be getting pretty hard to come up with anything fresh. Often, the best we can hope for is something like "17 Again," a slick, well-produced, well-acted retread. For younger viewers who haven't seen many, or any, role-reversal fantasies, this one should go over just fine. It's cute and sweet and generally inoffensive. For the rest of us, it may seem a little tired.