The More Respectable Way To Watch Zac Efron’s ’17 Again’

This piece follows somewhat in the footsteps of my I Love You, Man review, in that my expectations going into Burr Steers’ rather bland romantic comedy 17 Again, to some extent influenced my final verdict. Like any non-professional consumer of the light, blockbustery fluff of the summer movie season would know, there are a host of reasons that could end up deciding what movies you decide to cough up for, and which will have to wait for later. It can be the movies themselves, the buzz surrounding them, what movies the people you’re going to the movies with want to see etc. All of these are perfectly respectable excuses for choosing one movie over another, and few people would argue with them.

For me however, in this case, (and others that I have written about before), the main reason was one of those that you’re not supposed to admit to. I want to see 17 Again for two reasons only: Zac Efron and Hunter Parrish. If you care what people think of you (which, in instances like these, you should not), this is kind of an impossible situation. Had I been younger, I would have been supposed to deny that I was interested in male eye candy at all, but now that I’ve actually reached an age where I’m not concerned about that, I’m supposed to stay away from 17 Again because I have grown out of its targeted demographic. That’s why I decided to give a damn about the whole thing and see it anyway.

I’m telling you this not because I think that’s a particularly brave or interesting thing to do, but because it offers some background to on what premises I watched the movie. I did not see it because I expected it to be good in any traditional sense, and my patience with Freaky Friday-esque romantic teen comedy is very limited. But now that I had taken the chance on it anyway, I needed a way to enjoy it, something a little more substantive than the pleasurable presence of Misters Efron and Parrish.

The messy but not particularly original plot of 17 Again probably is the wrong place to look. Here goes: 37 year old Mike (Matthew Perry), once a talented basketball player who decided to go with family life when his high school girlfriend got pregnant, starts wondering about how it would be like to live it all over again, when his marriage falls apart. Then for some reason he is transformed into a 17 year old version of himself (Efron), and the comedic potential is meant to lie in how the supposedly more mature and experienced Mike copes with the codes of today’s youth, and how he works to steer his children (who are now his schoolmates) safely through their everyday life, without disclosing who he really is. Throw in Mike’s extremely annoying manboy best friend covering as his dad, the school bully (played with abrasive sexiness by Hunter Parrish) dating Mike’s daughter, and several cougar hunting jokes, and it doesn’t exactly sound like much fun.

But it turns out to be quite enjoyable anyway. You just have to approach it the right way.  I tried to watch it in two ways at the same time. On the one hand, I watched it through a sort of High School Musical lens, but simultaneously I watched it as an admittedly sentimental, but still semi-sincere reflection on the special bond between parents and their kids. More than anything, these two angles were crutches I used to make sense of what would otherwise have been a dreadful movie, and the not-easily converged nature of these two readings answers neatly to a certain schizophrenia already apparent in the movie: Does it want to be a goofy teen comedy, or a reflection on paths not taken? The movie never comes down on one side or another, which is actually something of a strength.

The fact that young Mike plays basketball makes the link to Efron’s HSM legacy fairly obvious, and the first trailer (I wrote about it here) made an intertextual reference to it (‘He’s back in the game‘). In my review of HSM3, my point was that it would have been a far better movie if it had concentrated on the singing and dancing instead of littering the script with laughably self-important (‘I guess my heart doesn’t know this is high school’) lines about Troy and Gabriella’s Perhaps Great But Oh So Uncertain Future. Clumsy writing made the kids sound far older than they were supposed to be, which is often the result when writers don’t exactly know how to tell something kind of serious in a matter-of-fact way. Luckily, however, the contextual baggage that Zac Efron brings to 17 Again makes the best out of exactly what made HSM3 feel so clunky.

Sure, this is where my argument takes a turn for the cynical. But it is inherently hilarious (and a tad absurd) when young Mike, with the mind of old Mike, speaks gravely about what challenges the future holds for his children, in pretty much the same way that Troy and Gabriella did in HSM3. It’s particularly clear in a scene from sex-ed, and another in which young Mike has to comfort his own daughter (this is where the logic goes off the rails) after she’s dumped by her boyfriend. The point is: In HSM3 the self-importance was a flaw. In 17 Again, Mike actually has good reason to speak and act in this way, which makes 17 a quite fresh parody of Efron’s past, an interpretation mildly encouraged by all the perhaps-conscious references to what Mike and Troy have in common. I know it’s a lot to ask of the viewer (among other things, fairly deep knowledge of the plot of an unrelated film), but seen through this prism, 17 Again made me smile more than its set of atrociously over-written supporting characters ever could.

To balance out the cynicism though, there is also a kinder way to read, and possibly appreciate, this movie: Simply to take its semi-sincerity at face value. Viewed in that light, the aforementioned scenes of relationship advice and sex-ed become more somber reflections on the problems teenagers have with imagining a different future for themselves, and the natural grown-up instinct to imagine what could have been in retrospect. Since this also allows us to take some aspects of the story more seriously than others – you could appreciate the sort-of-sincerity and still detest the cheap excesses of the supporting roles – the whole cougar hunting/screwball comedy aspect of the story becomes a little easier to enjoy as well. Here I should add that this perspective was the one I was most influenced by going into the film, thanks to a fairly sympathetic review from an older Danish critic, Per Juul Carlsen, of Danish Public Radio.

That said, I can’t say I particularly liked 17 Again. The two competing perspectives are not immediately compatible, and trying to watch it in two different ways simultaneously creates an an inevitable distance to the proceedings. Also, much to my surprise, it’s Efron, not Perry who is supposed to carry the comedic weight of the movie on his shoulders. He does fine when the point is to simply stroll around and look dazzlingly self-conscious, but his comedic range is nothing to crow about. The dullness of Perry’s character also reminded of everything I don’t like about him; he simply is not the right guy to play someone whom life has dealt a lot of disappointments.

Finally, there is the feeling that, for all its attempts to balance the stupid with the sincere, 17 Again is first and foremost a marketing tool. Nowhere is this more transparent than in the opening scene, one of many that plays gently on Zac Efron’s HSM history. There is no reason whatsoever for him to be shirtless while throwing the ball around, but if you are to attract the teen crowd, you gotta give’em something to watch. To me, it’s a little embarrassing to admit that I displayed pretty much the same schizophrenic reaction that is built into the movie as a whole. On the one hand I knew that I shouldn’t be fooled by such easy tricks, but on the other hand, I certainly found the view very pleasurable, and I also knew that New Line Cinema had successfully calculated my reaction even by greenlighting this project in the first place. Damn you!

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14 Responses to The More Respectable Way To Watch Zac Efron’s ’17 Again’

  1. jay says:

    I’ll probably see this for Hunter , who I rate more than Zac . Funny , thinking about High School Musical 3 . I pretty much enjoyed it for what it was , I will admit I was watching it really for Matt Prokop and his amazing hair .

  2. queerlefty says:

    I watched HSM3 for Zac, but MP certainly was a great bonus. Hunter’s role in ’17 Again’ is not big, but he gets the most out of it.

  3. poeticgrin says:

    I didn’t venture into theaters to see 17 Again (I’ll Netflix it) because I didn’t want to sit in a sea of 13 year old girls. Been there, done that, didn’t hear half the movie in what I’ll refer to as The Great Unfortunate Twilight Disaster of 2008. However, I think that I can add something to this conversation. Specifically, I would like to put the Gay Mafia on high alert. Please, Queens, do something about Mr. Efron’s hair. As of late, when he’s appeared on television for live events, it looks more like the mane of a transexual actress from the recently-departed lesbian drama The L-Word. I have hit on way too many hot lesbians because the look like cute guys. And I love my lesbians.

    I’m just saying, Zac, bring back surferboysummerland, please. You are a little too metrosexual for me at the moment. But I would still make out with you.

  4. queerlefty says:

    Haha, Bryan, I see your point about metrosexuality, and I’m hearing a lot of people saying the same thing, but this guy still has my heart racing. The tension between Zac and Hunter Parrish in this movie also is something dreams (…) are made of.

    I hope you’ll find a way to enjoy the movie, like I did.

    Care to share more of your Twillight experience? I waited till way out in its theatrical run precisely so that didn’t have to wade through a sea of Robert Pattinson-crushing prepubescent girls.

  5. Smilie says:

    I’m planning on watching the movie this week. You did a wonderful job of describing my expectations of the movie. I want to watch it for Zac and Hunter, not for the “engaging” storyline. :)

    Ah Twilight. Talk about an over-hyped movie. I liked it, but not as much as the hype suggested that I should. Guess people will like anything if there’s enough eye candy in it. I know I’ve certainly been guilty of that at times.

    I recently saw “Star Trek” in theatres. The movie was good and Chris Pine was even better on the big screen in tighty whities. ;-P

  6. queerlefty says:

    Smilie,

    Zac and Hunter should be perfectly capable of meeting such down-to-earth expectations! I must warn you, though, that Hunter’s role is not very big. He succeeded at capturing my attention and imagination nonetheless, hehe.

    Yeah, Twillight is overrated, but I have to admit that I kind of liked it, once it got beyond the love story/mythology establishing part. But my expectations were very, very low to begin with.

    Finally, Chris Pine was an unexpected treat in the surprisingly enjoyable ‘Star Trek’. He might even be one to look for on the upcoming June edition of SMA.

  7. Smilie says:

    They should have given Hunter a bigger role. :-)

    I did like Twilight, but not as much as the media hyped it up. I guess I’d have been happier with it had I gone into the theatre with lower expectations.

    So you did watch ‘Star Trek’? I’ve actually gone back and watch the original series from the 60’s. It was a show far ahead of its time. Because it was set in the future they could get away with talking about a lot of things that you couldn’t talk about on TV in those days. Interesting stuff!

  8. queerlefty says:

    Since the story itself was not what interested me about 17 Again, I would have been perfectly fine with them having made it a story mostly about the rivalry between Zac’s and Hunter’s characters, hehe. But I’m fairly satisfied as it stands, too.

    For some reason I had not heard almost anything about Twillight before the movie version was released, so I guess my expectations were lower than among than that of the average viewer. Since I was not yet fully aware of the intricacies of Twillight fandom, I guess I also steered clear of Twillight fatigue. Have you read the books or anything like that?

    I kind of wished I had the interest and determination to what the original ST series, it being one of the most influential cultural references in Western pop culture, but I’m afraid not. I admire yours, though.

  9. Smilie says:

    I haven’t read the books, but I’d like to (one of these days). :-)

    I think I just fell victim to the hype surrounding the movie. I’m not sorry I watched it, but I’m not going to run out and buy the DVD either.

    Not everyone can like Star Trek. ;-)

  10. queerlefty says:

    I have heard lots of bad things about the Twillight books, but some of it may be attributable to snobbery.

    I’ll be interested to see whether New Moon could keep up the hype, and further enlarge Pattinson and Stewart’s standing in pop culture.

  11. I still cannot believe I let some of my girl friends drag me to see “17 Again.” Literally, every ten minutes I get a whisper, “Do you think Zac is hot NOW???” You know my answer. But I can’t say that I HATED the movie because my expectations were really quite low. The man-boy-geeky friend make me laugh out loud so much because of his geeky/nerdy references. To me, he was the best thing about the movie and it made me wish that it was all about him.

    “I want to see 17 Again for two reasons only: Zac Efron and Hunter Parrish.”

    Hahaha. Well, I agree with the second part. But then don’t you think Hunter looks kinda gross with his weirdly-bleached blonde hair? I don’t know, he looked so different from “Weeds” (do you watch it??) so I was kind of thrown off.

    Fun review!

  12. queerlefty says:

    Franz, I love this. Ëven though we agree on many things (among them our common fascination with movie that try to push the envelope in one way or the other), we also fundamentally disagree on some things – sometimes because I may be too cynical (as with ‘I Love You, Man’, and other times because I may not be cynical enough (as with ’17 again’.) Take Matthew Perry’s friend in this movie as an example. I HATED him. I thought he was cheap, predictable, chliched and loud. It’s funny how I could hate the one thing about the movie that you actually enjoyed.

    Our Zac differences will probably never be resolved, and so I suspect we’ll just have to agree to disagree. I this think he is beautiful, although that 1989 look was a little weird.

    While we’re in the business of disagreeing, I have to say I wasn’t particularly put off by Hunter’s bleached hair. Sure, he looks way better in Weeds (yeah, I love it. I’m watching season 4. Season 5 just started?), but he still melts my heart.

  13. poeticgrin says:

    So I watched “17 Again” this weekend. It was okay. It wasn’t any “Big,” that’s for sure. But it was entertaining. I cringed a little at the attempted romance between Zac and his cougar-wife. It felt incestuous. It felt like a mom/son thing. I couldn’t shake it. How about that dancing number in the beginning? Talk about HSM rip off! But I guess you go with what works, right?

    • queerlefty says:

      This movie doesn’t hold up against any kind of cynicism, but I somewhat grudgingly enjoyed it, for it’s lighthearted screwbally tone, and at other times for its attempts at sentimental earnestness.

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