Nothing is ever completely original, “there is nothing new under the sun,” all drama boils down to seven basic plots, I get it.
There’s an unspoken but understood arrangement between filmmakers and the audience: Filmgoers don’t object when movie people rehash old movies and TV shows, so long as the end product injects some kind of new life or wit or spin or take on the material. Plundering the past is OK when the thieves do something interesting with the stolen goods.
And then there’s a movie like “17 Again,” which grafts together oodles of familiar characters and storylines without the benefit of anything new to say.
The film begins with a flashback to 1989 and a turning point in the life of high school senior Mike O’Donnell (Zac Efron). It’s the big game, and a college scout has come to watch Mike play basketball; seconds before the game begins, however, Mike’s girlfriend Scarlett informs him that she’s pregnant, so he walks out of the gym, pledging to devote his life to their new family.
Cut to 20 years later: Mike (now played by Matthew Perry) is a griping loser whom Scarlett (Leslie Mann) has kicked out of the house for torturing her and their two kids with his bitterness and regret. On the day he gets fired from his sales job, Mike goes back to his old high school, where a magical janitor (Brian Doyle-Murray) gives him the opportunity to become young again and fix his old mistakes.
After an “It’s a Wonderful Life”–esque interlude where Mike jumps off a bridge in an attempt to save the mysterious old man, he wakes up as a teenager and re-enrolls in high school. Mike’s nerdy-billionaire best friend Ned (Thomas Lennon of “Reno 911!”) figures out that Mike is on some sort of “spirit journey,” and Mike discovers that the real reason behind his return to school is to bond with and help his estranged children Maggie (Michelle Trachtenberg — hey, wait, shouldn’t Maggie be 20 years old, and not a high school senior, by this movie’s calendar?) and Alex (Sterling Knight).
Grafting together pieces of “Big,” “Freaky Friday” and “Peggy Sue Got Married,” among many others, “17 Again” hits the usual plot beats, with young Mike steering Maggie away from an abusive boyfriend and giving Alex the confidence to talk to girls and join the basketball team. If only any of this were funny — Efron shows little flair for comedy, and he doesn’t get much help from Jason Filardi’s deadly script, which even hobbles the usually-hilarious Lennon. (The only remotely amusing moments come from Lennon’s pursuit of Melora Hardin as a high-school principal.)
The real stand-out moments of “17 Again,” oddly enough, are the heart-tuggy moments between young Mike and older Scarlett (who thinks the kid is a cougar-chaser until she figures out who he really is). He may not excel at getting laughs, but Efron handles the movie’s attempts at poignancy with some flair; this kid needs to find another “The Notebook” to star in, stat.