With his breakout role in the charming and very funny new comedy "17 Again," teen idol Zac Efron is basically sending a not-so-subtle message to anyone in Hollywood who will listen: bye-bye "High School Musical," hello movie career.
Otherwise, "17 Again" could best be described as a hodge-podge of past "what if" films, like "Big," "13 Going on 30," the similarly-titled "18 Again" and both versions of "Freaky Friday." But it's still a good movie, thanks to a charming screenplay by Jason Filardi ("Bringing Down the House"), vibrant direction from Burr Steers ("Igby Goes Down") and a star-making performance by Efron.
And Efron handles his transition the right way, since he's not alienating his young fan base. If anything, he's bringing them along for the ride, since his character looks so much like Troy Bolton from "High School Musical" (fishbowl haircut, basketball uniform). But when it comes to proving that he can make the grade as a leading man in a romantic comedy, he passes with flying colors.
Buying into former "Friends" star Matthew Perry as an older version of Efron's character is another story, since there's no way Efron would grow up to look like Perry (much less act like him). But the whole scenario requires taking a leap of faith, which makes it easier to overlook the awkward casting, the clichés and some of the film's more contrived moments.
Perry plays Mike O'Donnell, a miserable 37-year-old caught in the throes of a mid-life crisis. His estranged wife (Leslie Mann) wants a divorce, his kids (Michelle Trachtenberg, Sterling Knight) won't give him the time of day and he was passed over for a promotion at work. It was a different story 20 years ago, when he was the super-popular star of his high school basketball team and he dated the prettiest girl in the school.
When Mike longs for the glory days, he's magically transformed into the body of his 17-year-old self. But it's still 2009, so he still has to contend with his bitter wife and bratty kids. With the help of his nerdy best friend (Thomas Lennon), Mike uses his thirty-something sensibilities to win back the love of his family and his passion for life – the life that he took for granted all those years ago.
Zac Efron could not have asked for a better project to appeal to his younger fans while embracing a more grown up role. Yes, he's still playing a teenager, but one with an old soul, and he mines the comic opportunities for all they're worth. Whether he's flirting with his wife (who's now old enough to be his mother), teaching his awkward son how to be cool or resisting the advances of his rebellious daughter, Efron deftly handles everything that comes his way.
Backing him up is scene-stealer Thomas Lennon ("I Love You, Man"), who poses as his father, lusts after the very attractive high school principal and sleeps in a bed shaped like the Landspeeder from "Star Wars." The entire cast is game, but it's Efron's show, and if he's sending a message that he's ready to be a movie star, then consider that message received – loud and clear.
Verdict: SEE IT!