Allow me a moment to sing the praises of Zac Efron.
He’s good-looking, multitalented, charming and funny, even though he’s something of a punchline to uncomprehending adults, who only know him through his teen-dream status from the “High School Musical” franchise.
But as he showed in “Hairspray” and in the still-unreleased “Me and Orson Welles,” Efron has range as an actor and an undeniable charisma that could make him a true star, once he starts making adult choices in material.
Unfortunately, he’s currently saddled with “17 Again,” a stinker of a comedy so lifeless it makes Cher’s plasticine puss look animated.
God knows the body-switch formula is tried and true. It worked for Jodie Foster and Lindsay Lohan in their respective “Freaky Friday” outings, for George Burns in “18 Again,” for Dudley Moore in “Like Father, Like Son” and for Tom Hanks in “Big.” Even the weakest vehicle, it seems, can squeeze laughs from this concept.
Writer Jason Filardi apparently wouldn’t know a joke if it jumped up and bit him in the behind. Laughs? This movie makes you want to shed tears at how often Filardi squanders the opportunity for even the most rudimentary comedic payoff. I won’t go so far as to call Filardi mentally impaired – but humor-impaired certainly fits the bill.
Efron plays Mike O’Donnell who, in 1989, is a high school basketball star with college scouts ready to hand him a scholarship, if he can show them the goods in his final game. Just as the contest is to start, Mike’s girlfriend shows up to tell him she’s pregnant. So Mike walks off the court right after the opening tip-off, to proclaim his love and, presumably, put his athletic career behind him forever.
Cut to 20 years later. Mike, now played by a sour-puss Matthew Perry, has two teen-age kids and is on the verge of a divorce.
(A bit of a mathematical inconsistency: Mike gives up college to get married and support a family, based on a pregnancy that begins in his senior year of high school. Twenty years later, the adult Mike’s oldest daughter, played by Michelle Trachtenberg, is only a high-school senior, which would also make her 17 – 18 tops. Unless she’s been held back two or three times? Or was this the world’s longest pregnancy?)
Adult Mike hates his life and wishes he had that crucial day to do over. So in the kind of supernatural moment these movies hinge on, he gets his wish and is transformed back into Zac Efron.
The new/old Mike thinks this is his chance to start his life over. Instead, it’s an opportunity to connect with the teen offspring he apparently has neglected until now. He helps them figure out their lives – and gets a chance to start over with his wife (Leslie Mann).
And it’s all guaranteed 100% laugh-free.
Not that there aren’t other talented people in the cast. Mann, Thomas Lennon, Melora Hardin – these actors aren’t chopped liver. Neither is Perry, for that matter – but they’re all treated like so many cogs in director Burr Steers’ joyless machine of a film.
Steers directed the unjustly overlooked “Igby Goes Down” a few years ago. On the other hand, he wrote the witless “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.” This film makes clear which of those two projects is a true reflection of his talent and taste.
According to the Internet Movie Database, writer Filardi (who also wrote the unfunny Steve Martin-Queen Latifah vehicle, “Bringing Down the House”) is at work on a remake of “Topper.” Does it even stand a ghost of a chance? Not if this film is an indication.