Body-swap comedies have been a staple of Hollywood ever since Friday first got freaky in 1976. What will come as a surprise to anyone who thinks that all the possibilities of the genre had been exhausted in films such as All of Me, Big and Vice Versa (based on the 1882 novel of the same name by F Antsey that is often referred to as the original body-swap story) is that 17 Again offers something new. The most obvious novelty, especially for adults immune to the High School Musical phenomenon, is the impossibly good-looking Zac Efron, who graduates in this film from teen idol to bona fide star. Normally, stories such as Big and 13 Going on 30 have to rely on an established performer, such as Tom Hanks or Jennifer Garner, to carry the movie.
These films usually begin with children magically becoming an adult version of themselves. The tale then demonstrates how unleashing the child inside can be of enormous benefit. 17 Again takes a different tack by lambasting adults who have failed to grow up. Indeed, in the case of Matthew Perry's Mike O'Donnell, he has regressed. The action starts with the 17-year-old Mike (Efron) being watched by basketball scouts in the big match of the season. However, he abandons his ball-playing dream to support his partner, Scarlett (Alison Miller), in her moment of need. Jump forward to the present day and Mike (Perry) is a father unhappily married to Scarlett (Leslie Mann). When he is forced out of the family home to live with his best pal, Ned (Thomas Lennon), Mike wonders whether he made the right choice when he abandoned his basketball dream. The time to suspend belief arrives when a school janitor miraculously lets Mike have his dream and turns him back into his 17-year-old self. For those not yet blessed with the opportunity of seeing Hollywood's hottest young star in action, Efron is like a modern-day Rob Lowe, all cheekbones and dreamy ocean-coloured eyes and a smile that would melt steel. Having previously shown that he can dance with the best of them, Efron now proves that he can act as well.
Here he is a revelation opposite Judd Apatow's real-life missus, Leslie Mann. He gets the right balance between innocence and animal drive as he attempts to prevent his "wife" from moving on with her life. Mann, excellent in Knocked Up, again shows why she is one of the funniest comedians working today. Although she can't quite work out what is so familiar about the teenage boy who has befriended her son, she is attracted by his familiarity and zest for life. Indeed, she remembers all the things that attracted her to Mike in the first place.
In many ways, the dilemma facing the young Mike is not too dissimilar to that facing Igby, in the director Burr Steers's film debut, Igby Goes Down: namely, how does a teenager cope in an adult world? Nonetheless, the biggest laughs in 17 Again are reserved for Mike's best friend, Ned. The scene in which he enrols his "son" in high school by trying to persuade the hard-nosed principal (Melora Hardin) of the merits of both Mike and himself is pure gold. Ned is the ultimate big kid revelling in the fact that he has the cash to live out his childhood dreams.
Although the film has fun with all the clichés of the genre, if there is a fault it's that the plot is too predictable. Mike learns perhaps a tad more than he should about his teenage son and daughter, while beginning to understand the source of their foibles. He starts to appreciate his wife and to value all the little things in life that he had taken for granted. The final scene in which Mike is back on the basketball court is as predictable as a Michael Jordan slam-dunk. There are absolutely no narrative surprises and yet 17 Again works because it wears its heart on its sleeve without becoming overly sentimental. Plaudits must go to Steers, who never lets the laughs out of sight and playfully contrasts the serious romance between Mike and Scarlett with the played-for-laughs romantic antics of Ned as he tries to woo the principal. But ultimately, this will be remembered as Zac Efron's coming-of-age film.