Even in 2009, after countless films from Freaky Friday to 13 Going on 30, there is still a passable or even good way to make a "body swap" movie, but unfortunately, 17 Again is not it. Shamelessly stealing from It's a Wonderful Life, Big, Groundhog Day and of course the glut of '70s and '80s movies that turned Fred Savage old and George Burns young, Burr Steers' follow-up to the arthouse comedy Igby Goes Down is as dumb and broad as its predecessor is smart and sophisticated, even with the undeniably charismatic Zac Efron as its star.
Efron (Hairspray) plays Mike O'Donnell, whose thirtysomething self (played by Matthew Perry) is transformed back into a present-day teenager after he decides that his life was ruined in high school after his girlfriend got pregnant and he abandoned a promising future in basketball to raise the kid. Convincing his geeky best friend Ned (Thomas Lennon) to pose as his dad, Mike decides to go back to high school so that he can reconnect with his kids Alex (Sterling Knight) and Maggie (Michelle Trachtenburg), not to mention keep an eye on his wife Scarlett (Leslie Mann). In addition to learning that Ed Hardy clothing is only worn by douchebags, Mike revisits the choices he made as a teenager and begins to discover that the life he's made may be better than the dreams he left behind.
The saddest thing about 17 Again is that I expected it not to be good, and it still managed to be deeply disappointing. While he's not yet a great actor, Zac Efron is absolutely destined to be a star, thanks to effortless charm and undeniable good looks, but he never manages to make Mike O'Donnell seem, well, old, unless you consider self-righteous lectures and a general feeling of superiority to be the hallmarks of a "mature" person. Meanwhile, the rest of the actors are hamstrung with one-dimensional characters in a half-dimensional script, where the whole concept of getting to be young again means nothing except having Zac Efron exchanging romantic glances with two generations of actors.
As far as its fantasy elements are concerned, the film barely devotes a minute of screen time to explaining Mike's transformation; evidently talking to a decrepit, smiling janitor one of my colleagues described as an escaped mental patient is enough to send you through a time vortex back to your teen years. That said, 17 Again does feature the highest geek quotient of any movie in recent memory, thanks to Thomas Lennon's depiction of Ned as so obsessed with Star Wars and Lord of the Rings that he's incapable of conducting a normal human conversation. But rest assured that even he eventually finds a suitable companion by the end of the movie.
Ultimately, if you've seen any of the "body swap" movies that were made in previous years, then there's no need whatsoever to see 17 Again. Not only does it have no new lessons to impart, it manages to forget the original lessons that are the reason for the genre's entire existence—like, say, it's important to see things from another person's point of view. Mike O'Donnell is a bitter jerk as an adult and a sanctimonious douchebag (with or without the Ed Hardy) as a teenager. All of which is why the most important lesson the movie may teach is that if adults and teens can see from each other's perspectives, find common ground and come together, then none of us will ever have to endure another movie like 17 Again again.