If you had any doubts about whether Zac Efron is major star material, just watch the first few minutes of Burr Steers' 17 Again.
A young, shirtless teen is shooting hoops by himself in a school gymnasium. His sweaty, tightly muscled, yet graceful body is flawless, and then the camera reveals the young man's face. At that very moment, there was a melting "Ahhhhhh!!!!!!" that arose from the audience at the AMC Loews Lincoln Square 13. It was as if "Love Potion No. 9" had been spritzed on the popcorn. "It's Zac!!!"
Like a young Paul Newman, Efron is almost outrageously pretty. He has no awkward angle. The camera simply has the hots for him.
But what's more consequential is that his presence alone makes a piece of semi-idiotic fluff -- which 17 Again inarguably is -- into a sporadically enjoyable film that will have you teary eyed by its finale. In fact, the only moments where the movie really falters are when Efron is off screen or when his sidekick, the screechingly annoying Thomas Lennon, is on.
The premise here is an oft-used one that clearly hasn't hurt the careers of Lindsay Lohan (Freaky Friday), Tom Hanks (Big), and Jodie Foster (the original Freaky Friday): An older person either exchanges his body with his child or through some unexplained force finds himself young again. Ninety minutes later this transformation causes all the romantically dysfunctional souls in the script to acknowledge that life is indeed worth living.
This time it's Mike O'Donnell (Matthew Perry), who has spent the last twenty years complaining he gave up a promising basketball career to marry his pregnant girlfriend, Scarlet (Leslie Mann). What has he wound up with? Two teen-aged children who despise him and a wife who is divorcing him. What else could happen? How about losing his job selling "erection" aids?
Licking his wounds, Mike winds up at the high school where he was once so popular. While gazing at a photograph of his younger self in a display case, a mystical janitor confronts him. Then, within hours and after some cheesy special effects, the Matthew-Perry Mike has metamorphosed into the Zac-Efron Mike.
With no place else to turn, Mike winds up at the home of his old pal Ned Gold (Lennon), who is a millionaire, Lord-of-the-Rings fanatical nerd with a problematic testicle. After first trying to kill Mike, Ned agrees to pose as his dad and enroll the newly pubescent chap into high school so Mike can resume a successful career shooting hoops.
So will Mike realize his dreams, win back his wife, and vanquish the school bully with the possibly "small wiener" who is dating his daughter and taping his son to a toilet? My lips are sealed. I won't even go into the discomforting scenes of near incest that would cause Freud to kick up his heels in Oedipal delight.
What's more interesting to ponder is whether Efron's talent will develop. After all, Newman at first was considered a lightweight who few took seriously.
And will Efron ever get out of high school? You're 21 already. Growing up isn't that bad.
(Please note that director Steers, who is Gore Vidal's nephew, also helmed and wrote one of the blackest, wittiest comedies of the decade, Igby Goes Down. What the hell happened?) - Brandon Judell
Mr. Judell, who's currently teaching "Contemporary Israeli/Palestinian Cinema" at City College, has written on film for The Village Voice, indieWire, Detour, and dozens of other publications.