As a remake of It's a Wonderful Life or Back to the Future, the movies it borrows from most heavily, the relive-your-senior-year comedy 17 Again falls a little short. But as a funny, sweet and smart star vehicle tailored for Zac Efron of High School Musical fame, it's right on the money.
The teen-friendly comedy is built on the hazards of unsafe high school sex, with the lead character wondering, "What could I have become?" had contraception or the A-word been an option at 17? Pretty edgy fare for a guy known for his bangs, his dance moves and his dubbed singing voice.
Efron ably struts his stuff as Mike, the star basketball player, king of Hayden High, who got his girlfriend pregnant and grew up into a bitter, resentful adult (Matthew Perry). Adult Mike is divorcing the mother of his children (Leslie Mann), hasn't connected with those kids in years and needs reminding why he made the choices he made, way back when.
A janitor-guardian angel (Brian Doyle-Murray) hurls him back into his 17-year-old self, into high school with his own kids (Michelle Trachtenberg and Sterling Knight). That's where the whiny Mike faces his responsibilities — the daughter making poor choices, the secretly bullied son who needs a male role model.
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The director of Igby Goes Down (Burr Steers) gives this just enough edge. Sure, there's the nerdy sidekick who grew up to be a rich nerdy sidekick (Thomas Lennon, hilarious in every scene he's in), the guy who decodes this as "a classic (sci-fi) transformation story."
"Are you now or have you ever been a Norse god, a vampire or a time-traveling cyborg?"
We get the confront-the-bully bit and the obligatory teen party. But there's a whole daughter-might-be-hot-for-teen-dad Back to the Future riff and the fact that the adult wife is drawn to and repulsed by her son's new "friend," the kid who looks "just like my husband" back in the day.
Efron sells the kid-playing-adult values stuff amusingly, turning sex ed class (with teacher Margaret Cho) into an abstinence lecture aimed at his daughter-classmate.
But it's the sweet touch that works, the married couple trying, for once, "not to hold each other back," the kids who need a peer who knows the psychology of the creep who is dating the daughter and picking on the son.
The movie doesn't work out how 1989 teens could have produced a daughter who is only 16 today. But 17 Again is a comically responsible way for Efron to leave his teen roles behind and make his teen audience think about the adult decisions they now face.