In both theme and plot outline, 17 Again plays much like Big in reverse, with a touch of It’s a Wonderful Life. If the results don’t quite live up to those fantasy benchmarks, blame the law of diminishing returns. In between are the performances and the script, with most of the former enjoyable, and the latter broad but serviceable.
When we first meet Mike O’Donnell (Efron), it is 1989 and he is on top of the high school world. Twenty years and an unplanned pregnancy later, Mike is played by glum-faced Matthew Perry. In about 10 minutes of screen time, we learn that his wife (Mann) wants a divorce, he’s lost his job, and his two teenage children want nothing to do with him.
Enter plot device, in the form of a wish-granting old janitor, and Efron is back onscreen, dealing with the problems of a 37-year-old man. The High School Musical star is surprisingly charming and funny, showing real chemistry with the older Mann. Unfortunately, he and the production are too clean-cut to mine any of the darker territory of director Steers’ debut, Igby Goes Down.
Throw in a supporting role from scene-stealing Thomas Lennon as Mike’s geeky friend Ned, along with cameos from comedians Jim Gaffigan and Margaret Cho, and the movie becomes consistently humorous. To get much else out of it, you’d probably need to be a 17-year-old girl.