17 Again: When Star Comes First and Story Comes Second

The first twenty minutes of 17 Again are excruciating. One can feel the studio machinations chugging the film forward, with no concern for character, story, or good sense. The proceedings are preposterous, even for a fantasy comedy such as this. However, around the time when the film settles down and allows Zac Efron to beginning acting like a 40-year-old… the cringeworthy elements no longer became glaring. Director Burr Steers seems to think if you simply point the camera at your hot young star, you have a movie. However, Efron saves the movie by doing something Steers doesn’t seem to be concerned with– acting. Between Efron and the astounding comedic sidekick work of Thomas Lennon, the movie gets its share of laughs and turns out to be somewhat worth the admission, especially for its target audience.

We meet Mike O’Donnell when he’s 17, and played by a shirtless Zac Efron, making every basket on an empty court. Then, the big game happens, the Syracuse recruiting agent is there, and he’s dancing the entire routine with the cheerleaders (a particularly odd moment in a film full of them)– he’s the king of the school. But oops! He knocked up his girlfriend, and so in the middle of the big game, he leaves the game and proposes to her. What do we think Disney thought when they heard their golden boy is playing a hero who has pre-marital sex and doesn’t go to college? But I digress. Now it’s twenty years later, and he looks like Matthew Perry (even more odd than the dancing with cheerleaders). He’s upset with the choices he made in life, and it’s affected his livelihood– his wife (Leslie Mann) is divorcing him, his kids despise him, and his boss passes him up for a promotion and fires him. He visits his old school and encounters a mystical janitor (is there any other kind?) played by Brian Doyle-Murray, making this the first film in which the mystic who helps the unhappy white person is not played by some minority. He turns back into Zac Efron, re-enrolls in school to help his kids, save his marriage, and find happiness. Can he do it?

Of course he will. But you’re not watching this film for its major plot twists and deeply written characters. You’re here for Zac Efron. So how is he? He handles the comedy well, and even has some fun at the expense of his own image (when a character thinks he’s gay because of his perfectly coiffed hair and tight jeans, for example). He also seems like someone who’s balancing well the desire to break out of his mold while still keeping his core audience (and the parents who buy his core audiences’ tickets) happy. When he calls his wife’s new date a douche, it doesn’t reek of “Disney star saying a naughty word.” Everything he does seems natural. There’s a hilarious moment where he’s in health class with his daughter, and he tries to convince everyone that sex is something you share with someone you love. The punchline is unexpected, and it’s this type of moment that keeps his Disney image but also gently parodies it, and this is when his performance really takes off.

Finally, there’s Thomas Lennon (Lt. Dangle from TV’s Reno 911) as his best friend Ned and Melora Hardin (Jan Levenson from TV’s The Office) as his principal… and Ned’s love interest. Lennon walks away with this movie every time he’s on screen. Too often he’s put in movies where everyone is acting goofy and weird, so his particular brand of humor just doesn’t come across. Here, he is the king geek, putting the “relief” in comic relief, especially during the rough first twenty minutes, where all you want is more Thomas Lennon. Anyone who’s seen The Office knows that casting Melora Hardin in the role of “business-oriented woman who’s deflecting the romantic gestures of an idiot” was inspired.

My main question leaving: how did Burr Steers, of the witty and melancholic “Igby Goes Down,” end up as the man at the helm of this project? It’s clear that someone walked into an office and said, “A man wishes he could be 17 again, and he turns into Zac Efron,” and was handed millions of dollars to make it happen. Steers phones it in, and the tone is often jarring in its transitions. He was not interested in making a film personal to him (or at least it didn’t come across that way on the screen) but was instead interested in helping the Efron Star shine and collecting a paycheck. There’s nothing wrong with that, as this could help him get funding for future films. However, one wishes that instead of merely placing the camera and saying “Action!”, he’d cultivated the story and performances more. The materials for a good Hollywood body switch movie are all there. It’s like he began a puzzle and quit 2/3rds of the way through– the pieces that are put together are very good, and we see what the final image should look like… but you can’t ignore the glaring holes and the spare parts still remaining in the box. Note to future directors: Efron will give you a good performance, star-quality charm, and boyish good looks. He has the potential to soar. Just don’t break his back by making him carry too many underdeveloped films.

~ by russellhainline on April 21, 2009.

3 Responses to “17 Again: When Star Comes First and Story Comes Second”

  1. wow russ that was actually a pretty glowing review of zac. kinda makes me want to see the movie–shh don’t tell anyone. but isn’t “when star comes first and story comes second” pretty much descriptive of 90% of the stuff coming out of hollywood?

  2. Love this blog I’ll be back when I have more time.

  3. Good review…but I wanted more pictures of Zac. Maybe with his shirt off? 🙂

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