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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
April 26, 2009

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.

Seventeen Again

I had low expectations for Seventeen Again. How could anything be done at this late date with the go-back-to-high-school fantasy?

Freaky Friday did the parent-swaps-with-child thing ... twice. Both movies are fine. But surely we can consider that done now, can't we? If somebody wants to see that idea made into a new movie, can't the just NetFlick either the Jodie Foster or the Lindsay Lohan Freaky? Or both?

Or flip the sexes, go back to 1987, and make it Dudley Moore swapping with Kirk Cameron in Like Father, Like Son?

Or try the dead husband who is reincarnated and, as a teenager, is dating this girl when he meets her mother and his past life comes back to him and he realizes he is now dating his former daughter and he's really in love with the girl's mother only it's too weird to stand? That's a touchingly young Robert Downey Jr. in Chances Are (1989).

You've got the classic Big in which Tom Hanks plays a kid suddenly turned into an adult. (Or the decent but not so classic 13 Going On 30, which is Big again, only with Jennifer Garner instead of Tom Hanks.)

Or the brilliant All of Me, in which Steve Martin so convincingly plays a man whose body is half-controlled by the soul of a dead woman that you actually think Lily Tomlin gave a brilliant performance in her half of Steve Martin's body.

You want the teenager who goes back in time to save his family in the present? Come on, the original Back to the Future has that one in spades.

For an adult who goes back into her own teenage body in the past in order to fix stuff that went wrong the first time around, there's Peggy Sue Got Married, with Kathleen Turner as the adult-in-a-teenage-body and Nicolas Cage in his weirdest and perhaps most endearing performance.

In my mind, Peggy Sue did the job, and it was done. Why did I need to have Matthew Perry relive his teenage years as High School Musical heartthrob Zac Efron?

Here's why: It's actually a good movie. Probably not a classic like Big and All of Me, but maybe a happy memory like Peggy Sue and the first Back to the Future movie.

And even though it has the same kind of extravagant magical premise as the others, it is actually different from all of them.

For one thing, it isn't about changing the past. He can't change the past because he's not in the past. He has simply been made a teenager now, in the same world where his wife (Scarlett O'Donnell) is divorcing him.

In his adult life, "Mike O'Donnell" (Matthew Perry) has totally blown his life. He's in a dead-end job and he's wrecked his marriage because he constantly blames his wife for the fact that he never got to go on to play basketball in college -- he gave it all up to marry her straight out of high school, because he got her pregnant.

His teenage kids despise him, too. But when he is magically (and ridiculously, by the guy who played the mayor in Groundhog Day) transformed into the basketball wizard Zac Efron, the high school he goes to is the one where his own kids are -- and he gets to see the truth of their lives.

He isn't being sent back for himself. He's being sent back so he can actually do something for them.

So he doesn't meet his teenage wife. He meets his present-day divorcing-him wife who is disturbed by his weird resemblance to her husband when he was a high school jock instead of a whiner jerk.

OK, it bothered me that the pending divorce was absolutely and one hundred percent his fault. But, fortunately, that's not terribly important as the story moves forward.

Why? Because:

1. Zac Efron can act. Yes, he's as pretty as the young Robert Redford and prettier than Brad Pitt. He can dance and he is convincing as an athlete. But he can do the emotions, too -- real ones, perfect for the scene. And he's absolutely convincing as a grown-up dad in a kid's body. He nails it. He deserves to have a Redford- or Pitt-like career. Go Zac.

2. The actors playing his teenage kids -- Sterling Knight and Michelle Trachtenberg -- are also terrific.

3. The writing is smart and at times achieves actual eloquence -- something that few screenplays even try for.

The film totally earns a great scene in which Zac Efron (remember, he's a dad in disguise) convinces all the girls in a classroom (including his own daughter) that they don't want to have sex until they're married.

And then there's the scene where Zac Efron sees his wife with new eyes when he enters her (formerly their) back yard and sees how she has transformed it. It could not have been written or acted better.

And finally the writer (Jason Filardi) creates a climactic scene in which Zac Efron, with perfectly pitched emotion, reads a love letter to his wife.

Folks, this script did not actually have to be smart for the film to get made. But it is smart. And Zac Efron did not need to have talent in order to get cast -- pretty and famous were enough. But he has the talent -- a lot of it.

The secret weapon of this movie, however, is the surprisingly good comic relief provided by Thomas Lennon as the very rich, incredibly geeky friend Ned Gold.

Thomas Lennon is not only a very funny character actor (Balls of Fury, Hancock), he's also a very funny writer -- he wrote or co-wrote Taxi, The Pacifier, Night at the Museum, and Balls of Fury.

And despite the fact that the main plot of this movie is very, very good -- Lennon flat-out steals it.

As the friend that Matthew Perry goes and lives with when the divorce proceedings begin, it seems at first that "Ned Gold" (Lennon) is just going to be an annoying dweeb who collects memorabilia from sci-fi and fantasy films.

But then, when he pretends to be Zac Efron's father in order to get him into high school, he falls in a big way for the principal of the school (Melora Hardin) and woos her using every ridiculous technique that a socially hopeless man can find.

To my great surprise -- and delight -- he isn't just used as a figure of ridicule. Instead, he becomes the most spot-on depiction of a fantasy fan-boy I've ever seen in a film (yes, even better than those in Galaxy Quest) -- and instead of despising him, this movie loves him.

I went to Seventeen Again because it was just about the only tolerable thing available on a night that we wanted to go to the movies.

I came out of the theater happy that I had gone and eager to recommend it to my friends.

This is not a "good movie" in the pretentious, edgy, wish-for-death Oscar-bait sense.

This is a good movie in the Frank Capra, aren't-humans-cool, isn't-love-wonderful sense.

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