The Senior Year Do-Over Movie has been done, if not to death, definitely to the point of critical exhaustion. Clearly, it’s an idea that attracts actors and studios and screenwriters and even audiences, and apparently it needs updating every couple of years. 17 Again is in theaters filled with wide-eyed eleven-year-old girls and their moms, teenagers in cliques, all pining/lusting for the lead, and it seems only fitting that once again, a Zac Efron vehicle goes toe to toe with cinema giant Francis Ford Coppola, who conveniently, for our purposes, directed the little 1986 chestnut Peggy Sue Got Married. Countless other do-over films deserve a critical once-over, but symmetry demands this particular smackdown rematch. Efron vs. Coppola – The Do-Over. Let the smacking begin.
17 Again (2009) Zac Efron is a freaking movie star. The world needs movie stars, particularly young movie stars who aren’t in the habit of wrapping their cars around trees and publicly experimenting with pharmaceuticals and notching bedposts. 17 Again is a giant gift wrapped delivery system, the perfect presentation of the most freshly minted movie star we’ve got; from the first moment, the movie keeps unwrapping that undeniable gift and handing it over to his already-devoted fans. Their parents are dragged along, some grudgingly perhaps, sick to death of the High School Musical 1-3 soundtracks, lured or coerced by the PG13 rating. But there is plenty here to love, even for them.
Zac Efron plays 17-year-old Mike. He makes a decision that changes everything for him. Matthew Perry plays 37-year-old Mike, trapped in a dead-end job and a marriage foundering on the rocks. His teenaged children are virtual strangers, and he wants a do-over, a chance to choose the road not taken. Through magical circumstances too clumsy and stupid to describe, Mike gets his second chance. He’s 17 again, and happily for the audience, Efron’s back with a father’s insights and experience in an unarguably dreamy (and grateful) high school senior’s body. Yawn. Except it works.
From the first shirtless swoosh to his dreamy makeover, the movie dishes up Zac and gives him great stuff to do. A basketball-tricked-out comeuppance for the school bully, a cooler than cool arrival at school, dancing and romancing his MILF wife, an inappropriately reflexive flirtation with the principal, the unintentional, inevitable, and sensitively handled seduction of his daughter, a not-so-instant replay of his pivotal moment of decision. The script is complicated enough to stretch the genre a bit; this time traveler is savvy. The director and screenwriters have packaged their young star impeccably; he is their Botticelli Venus on the halfshell, and they do him (and his legions) a great service, surrounding him with comic invention and decent production values. Co-stars Melora Hardin and Thomas Lennon are more than up to carrying their solidly funny B story. Leslie Mann plays the cougar well; true confusion and lust plays in her dazzled eyes, and we don’t/can’t blame her.
The Defending Champion
Peggy Sue Got Married (1986) Kathleen Turner (Peggy Sue) attends her twenty-fifth high school reunion. The whole class of 1960 shows up, all played by twenty and thirty-somethings in rather dreadful age makeup for reasons that will become painfully obvious in the second act. Her estranged doofus of a husband does too, and it proves a bit much for neo-feminist Peggy Sue. She drops conveniently to the floor for a prolonged dream sequence flashback do-over. An omniscient Peggy Sue “wakes up” in 1960 and takes the opportunity to make a few changes in the course of her life and the lives of others. Francis Ford Coppola helms the project, and his visual touch is far stronger than the wobbly narrative it supports.
Coppola knows how to make a beautiful film. Peggy Sue Got Married is masterful filmmaking, a virtual valentine to 1960’s lost innocence. Every dollar spent is onscreen; the sets and period cars are perfection. With all the sightseeing, the timing seems a little off on most of the funny lines, and pacing for the original set-up is positively glacial. Perhaps the reunion sequence cost too much to cut, but a little of it goes an extraordinarily long way. Consider instead the opening sequences of a classic like Wizard of Oz; impeccably and economically written and filmed, we know everything we need to know about Dorothy and her world in a line or two from each and every character.
Costumer Theadora Van Runkle’s pastel palette stays muted in pearly grey with hits of Easter egg pale pinks and yellows; the cherry vintage cars lining the streets sparkle like every grown-up boy’s wet dream. Misty watercolor memory indeed. The film veers in tone throughout, an unfortunate result of way too many good script ideas. Occasionally, an affectingly sentimental update of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, these were the parts of the film I remembered most fondly. In rewatching the film after twenty-three years, I was surprised how few of these powerful moments there actually were.
Matthew Perry plays the older Zac as if his inner light has extinguished, explaining his dour demeanor as twenty years of a bad mood. The biggest problem in the film (and there are logic holes big enough to drive a giant rental limo through) is a central one. Could the iridescent Zac Efron grow up to be Matthew Perry? Zac’s impossibly blue eyes are alight, his nose turns up, he twinkles and skitters like a pocket-sized B-ball-handling Fred Astaire. Everything on Matthew Perry’s face skids downward – his eyes slope sadly, his mouth droops snidely, even his nose points to the ground. If Zac is light on his feet, Matthew Perry shuffles and barely lifts his. Can depression and twenty years do this to a countenance? Then again, who would have guessed that the young and luminous Kathleen Turner would grow up to be Mickey Rourke?
Zac Efron is not yet a great actor, but he has some serious chops and a deft light touch, huge potential and the kind of physicality that will last. A real connection…sly athleticism and that kind of charm, deference, and humility that sustains superstars like George Clooney. Plus he can dance and sing and handle the ball. Put him in, coach. Put him in. This kid is blessed, and he works hard, not resting on his teen idol laurels for a moment. (His learning curve between High School Musical and 17 Again was a steep one, and Efron does a remarkable job, carrying the film.) Am I gushing? Oh yeah, and physical beauty that’s really rare. Think young Johnny Depp and Brad Pitt. That kind of beauty and promise. Note to Zac: Do more musicals. Please, for the love of God, let other young actors do all the stupid college comedies and the action movies. You can sing and dance and light up the screen. Act. Study. Challenge yourself. Stick around. Follow Depp’s lead; hook up with solid directors and do interesting projects. But don’t stop dancing.
Ms. Turner could not portray a convincing seventeen nor forty-two – too dewy to play older, too grounded and smoky to play younger. And while she nailed the sentiment and most of the drama, she killed most of the jokes. But for me, Nicolas Cage’s mondo bizarre-o performance shuts down the enterprise completely. His off-putting and maddeningly inconsistent vocal choice, a weirdly unconvincing and annoying Jerry Lewis cartoon character, comes and
goes and ultimately leads nowhere. The two leads are kind of creepy after all, and their struggling marriage a big who-cares.
That said, there are some pleasures to be had in Peggy Sue Got Married; watching an eccentric and baby-faced Jim Carrey eight years before his breakthrough Ace Ventura role and a gawkily adolescent Sofia Coppola. Generic grandparents right out of central casting are something of a disappointment, and the marvelous Barbara Harris has precious little to do, probably cast for the sly reference to genre progenitor Freaky Friday, then used to no great effect.
There are other comic elements that don’t quite work either; while we know (more or less) that this is all Peggy Sue’s Wizard of Oz-style dream, the visitor from the future elements don’t play well in this structure. Giving the class nerd a leg up on future technology, dressing down the class slut, building up the bohemian artist – these add up to weirdly false beats from another film entirely. The hospital room ending makes as much sense as any, but it’s pedestrian and hammy.
The time travel spirit guide element in 17 Again is just plain sloppy; one can easily imagine the story conference:
Is this all in his head or is it really happening? Is Matthew Perry the only person who sees the janitor/spirit guide?
Doesn’t matter. We’ve got Efron.
And doesn’t it make her sort of a giant bitch to tell him her big news right before his big game? Doesn’t matter. We’ve got Efron.
Does divorce court really work like this? Doesn’t matter. We’ve got Efron.
Hang on. We’ve got a problem. Supernerd Ned is and always has been Michael’s best friend. If his “son” looks just like Michael, wouldn’t anyone with a brain realize that Michael’s the kid’s “dad?” Doesn’t matter. We’ve got Efron.
Face it. Logic and storytelling are not the reasons we flock to this genre. These films are not about the means of actual time travel. Time travel is just our stupid shorthand shortcut back to high school, the land of our national and communal dreams and nightmares, the apparent fork in all our roads. We go to these films accepting the stupidity and lack of clarity because we all wish to go back for a do-over. Whether it’s Peggy Sue’s knock on the head or Dorothy’s, or a Big gypsy fortuneteller or a spirit guide jumping off a bridge in 17 Again or It’s A Wonderful Life, the dreamer always knows more than he does in life and comes out changed and more fully awake, but wanting the same thing he always had. The sleepwalker becomes the dreamer who wakes up. The lesson is somewhat dreary after all the magic: There’s no place like home.
Quick. Tell Levi and Bristol that in twenty-five years, they won’t want to change a thing. Ha.
I can’t believe I’m doing this again, favorably comparing a Zac Efron movie to a Francis Ford Coppola “classic” but I am and probably jeopardizing my critic cred in the process. Successful critically and financially, Peggy Sue doesn’t really stand the test of time. It’s saddled with a few too many big ideas, left unsupported and undeveloped. Its tone is uneven; one wishes Coppola could have expanded the exquisite wonders of revisiting the past. Comedy is clearly not his strong suit. And Cage is downright creepy; it’s hard to imagine Uncle Francis not slapping him silly.
17 Again is just plain more fun than Peggy Sue. It’s hardly beautiful filmmaking, but it stays on message, and it makes you laugh. It’s a star vehicle equipped with the standard genre-specific insights and enough gas mileage to get you twenty-five years from now, when it’ll stand a little mustily in cinema’s pantheon as Zac Efron’s first non-Disney breakout role in a long and illustrious career. He’s worth the price of admission; it’s going to be fun watching him get better and better. (I’m looking forward to his turn in Me and Orson Welles and I swear to the movie gods I’m no stalker.)