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Friday, May 8, 2009
Stereotypical diatribe against middle age misses the point
By KAORI SHOJI
"Youth is wasted on the young" said playwright George Bernard Shaw when he was long past blooming cheeks and sowing wild oats — one imagines his creased face scrunched in bitter cynicism as he uttered those words. What would Shaw say if he saw "17 Again," the tailored-for-teens fable (saddled with a rather obvious moral) about a tired, middle-aged bloke who gets to restart life as the gorgeous 17-year old he once was?
At the start of the story, the bloke is painfully aware of how youth (especially his own) was far too precious to be wasted on the young (specifically, his former high school self). If he only knew then what he knows now! If he could only go back and do it over! There would be no squandering of valuable time, or wilful destruction of what could have been a glorious future. And then he gets his wish — a fairy god-janitor (don't ask) waves a magic wand and the doughy, sorry 37- year-old morphs into a slim teen with laughing eyes and shining dark hair.
"17 Again" is directed by Burr Steers, who made an impressive feature debut in 2002 with the semi-arthouse work "Igby Goes Down." That was an honest, keenly observed portrayal of teen angst and confusion in all its vulnerable glory. His latest, however, has none of the subtlety or lightness of touch that made "Igby" so intriguing.
Full of shrieky, sitcomesque humor, and undercut by an inherent urge to throw all the characters behind bars in a metaphorical prison cell of stereotypes, "17 Again" will leave adults feeling guilty for having lived to be so old, and its target audience of 17-year-olds rolling their eyes in embarrassed exasperation. It just about manages to offend everyone with the possible exception of software genius nerds and dogs. That's about it.
Matthew Perry plays Michael O'Donnell, a washed-up 37-year-old who has just moved into the house of his high school buddy Ned (Thomas Lennon) after a major tiff with his wife Scarlett (Leslie Mann). Ned is single, and a highly successful software geek who's unruffled by the plight of his pitiful friend — who 20 years ago had been a star basketball player slated for a scholarship to play college hoops. Michael too, can remember his golden years with painful clarity — especially the day when, minutes before an important game, Scarlett informed him of her pregnancy. That sealed his fate: Michael lost the game, his scholarship to college, his entire brilliant future. Now he's always being passed over for promotions and Scarlett hates his guts. His two kids, Alex (Sterling Knight) and Maggie (Michelle Trachtenberg), treat him like a piece of dirt that accidentally landed on their nonfat blueberry muffins. Little do they know that he is about to enroll in their high school and become a red-hot item — so much that Maggie can't resist flirting with her own old dad.
Dad finds the transition to youth both wonderful and alarming. Renamed Mark (played by Zac Efron) to avoid detection from Scarlett (who can't help but notice how the new boy in her kids' school bears an uncanny resemblance to the guy she dated 20 years ago), Dad reverts to teenage pleasures like gross-out eating (squirting cans of Cheez Wiz and whipped cream directly down the throat), deep, gluttonous sleeping (36 hours and counting), or changing his shirt during basketball practice to expose a beautifully sweating torso. The crowd of girls who had gathered to watch this monumental occasion salivate like a pack of she-wolves.
On the other hand, Michael/Mark still feels like a father and tries to protect his kids from bullies and bad boyfriends. He also falls for Scarlett all over again, even though at this point he's young enough to be her son.
There's something mean and smug about "17 Again," most of which is condensed into the fact that the story insists on dividing life into two camps: Gilded Teen and Shabby Mid-Life with a huge void in between. Nothing in the dialogue hints at Michael's life when he was say, 25. And nothing about the life of a middle-class kid in American suburbia, after he marries a high school girlfriend and becomes a teenage father. "Life just passed him by" explains the smarmy narrative. Maybe that's true, but we never understand why — or if — Michael ever deserved it.