Friday, November 13, 2009

17 Again

The most surprising thing about 17 Again - other than the extent to which I enjoyed it - is that the movie it most reminds of isn't one of the gaggle of body-swapping, shape-shifting teen-coms (Freaky Friday, 13 Going on 30, Big) behind which it gets in line. No, the movie to which is owes its biggest debt is Back to the Future.

This is most explicitly apparent when Zac Efron (playing a middle-aged malcontent recently shrunk back to his teenage self for a little spiritual redirection), in an attempt to prevent her from giving up her virginity to the worst possible guy, inadvertently causes his daughter-cum-classmate to fall in love with him. In the complicated process of breaking her off from a rapist-in-training boyfriend, Efron gets his lights knocked out, and wakes up cooing softly, talking about a dream he's had that he was a teenager again, believing himself to be lying in the lap of his beautiful wife. One double-take later, he realizes he's with his own daughter, and she's throwing herself at him like he's a Jonas brother.

The sequence mirrors, beat-for-beat, the moment after Marty McFly gets himself smacked out of conciousness by his own grandfather's car and wakes up in his teenaged mother's bedroom in his underwear, his jeans over on her hope chest. It's a twisted moment - though Michelle Trachtenberg, as daughter Maggie, is phoning it in here and can't hold a candle to Lea Thompson's effortless sexuality. But for disposable teen fare such as this, there are worse movies to emulate.

Also twisted (in a different way) are the leering shots in the film of Efron without a shirt. It's pornographic in a way that doesn't really jive with the messages of abstinence and family values imparted elsewhere. I get the impression that this is a kind of transitionary project for lil' Zac; he's trying to shed his school-boy image but he still only has one demographic interested in him and their Catholic parents are paying too close attention for him to try anything really risky.

This, by the way, is why Efron will remain marketable long after someone like Robert Pattinson has gone the way of the pog. You see Zac without a shirt and you think maybe he just wants to help you with your garden (he does do some wholesome gardenwork in the movie). He's kind of asexual, which is just what we want for our prepubescent daughters to have on their walls. If Efron really wants to bust out of any molds, he best start getting photographed in his underwear like Jessica Biel did.

In the meantime, Zac is content to distract us from his six-pack by flexing his comic muscle. He's actually got some stuff. That whole timing thing is down pat, and his willingness to embarrass himself earns a lot of points (it's also, I must imagine, totally adorable). He gets slapped across the face probably ten times in the film, and it's not the ensemble doing the smacking that makes me chuckle. It's the Efron deadpan.

I can't believe a movie with Trachtenberg, Melora Hardin, Jim Gaffigan, Leslie Mann and Matthew Perry would let Zac Efron be the best thing in it. His talent is not to be denied, and I only hope he gets to prove it to the doubting masses someday instead of going off the deep end like so many other child stars who sold their youths to Disney.

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