17 Again sports a premise so overdone that it practically throws tomatoes at itself: a likable loser magically returns to high school. It may astonish you to learn that the new movie is not only bearable, it's hilarious and surprisingly wholesome. Starring Zac Efron from the High School Musical movies, 17 Again puts Efron in a setting much closer to that of an actual high school-which is to say, no singing, little dancing, and more swearing (the movie is rated PG-13 for that and a couple of mildly dirty jokes).
Mike O'Donnell (Matthew Perry) is a 37-year-old basket case who has lost his job and is close to losing his family to divorce. It wasn't always this way: Mike used to be a basketball star with a bright future until he got his high-school girlfriend pregnant. 20 years later, he's the sad sack you see before you, estranged from his wife (the wonderful Leslie Mann) and his high-school-aged kids (someone has fallen down in the math department here, I believe). Luckily, there's some kind of magic something-or-other to save the day.
For a movie with such a lighthearted premise, 17 Again gets into some dark corners, and it navigates them extremely well. For one, the scene in which a scandalized Mike (Efron, now that Mike's been de-aged) delivers an impassioned plea for abstinence to a health class is hilarious without making the idea sound stupid. For another, the problems Mike's daughter Maggie (Michelle Trachtenberg) deals with don't get dramatized enough-the perfectly smart, nice 17-year-old sincerely tells her youthful Dad that she's going to go to community college instead of Georgetown so that she can be closer to her horrible boyfriend, since he's "on the management track at Home Depot."
The cast does good work, but a lot of credit should go to director Burr Steers, whose only other feature is the wonderful, pitch-black comedy Igby Goes Down. His new movie isn't quite a take-your-kids family outing, but it offers the brains and the sweet spirit of the Judd Apatow movies (Knocked Up and The 40-Year-Old Virgin) with less of the grime.