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!