It’s an old, old observation that youth is wasted on the young. Not having had the experience of not being young, they don’t really understand how marvelous it is; it’s just the status quo. There’ve been more than a few stories written about that idea, along the generally good idea of an adult suddenly getting to relive part of his youth again (the ultimate adult fantasy), and usually coming to the conclusion that youth is probably wasted on the old, too. It’s unclear if that’s because that’s how things would naturally turn out, or if it’s just because people love repeating good stories.
Director Burr Steers (“Igby Goes Down”) and screenwriter Jason Filardi (“Bringing Down the House”) haven’t exactly done that, but they’ve not exactly grown outside the box of expectations, either. The usual fantasy has been more or less ditched and replaced with something a bit more family oriented.
The world was supposed to be Mike O’Donnell’s (Zach Efron) oyster; smart and likeable and on the verge of a basketball scholarship that would ensure college and his future. Until a very common youthful indiscretion (that’s really not at all virtue of only the young) sees his girlfriend getting pregnant and Mike giving up his future for marriage, kids and the 9-to-5 grind. What follows is a 20 year pity party that it drives away his wife, Scarlet (Leslie Mann), his children, and just about everyone else around him except his adoring, socially-challenged best friend Ned (Thomas Lennon).
Or at least we must assume so. Most of this we’re told, as we watch adult Mike (Matthew Perry) reacting his life falling apart, but with little context. Imagine starting “It’s a Wonderful Life” about the point George jumps off the bridge after Clarence, and without any of the build-up before that point. More or less the same thing happens here, bridge included, and when Mike pulls himself out of the river he finds himself 17 again.
Of course the movie isn’t really about Mike relieving his youth, jokes and teases aside. It’s about reconnecting with his children in a way an adult simply isn’t capable of, and it’s about Zac Efron. The good news is, Efron is immensely likeable and quite capable of playing an adult teenager (albeit, an extremely bowdlerized version of one), and the movie becomes immediately more interesting the moment he arrives. Unfortunately, there’s only so much he can do thanks to Filardi’s extremely bland script.
It’s the kind of script that reduces the genuinely funny Thomas Lennon to the stereotypical rich nerd, despite his apparent inability (or at least lack of desire) to separate the world of fantasy and comics from the real world. He’s like the sidekick from a bad sitcom. So outlandish it’s obvious he’s meant to be funny, while still being tame and safe, which tends to reduce humor to childishness. Ned being foiled from driving his Lamborghini fast by the local crossing walk guard in some sort of on going feud is funny. Ned sleeping in a car bed made up to look like the landspeeder from Star Wars is silly. And Filardi doesn’t seem to be able to distinguish between the two.
The only other saving grace is Leslie Mann, who deserves a lot more leading lady comedy work than she gets, as Mike’s soon to be ex-wife. She is naturally drawn to Mike, masquerading as Ned’s son, even though she can’t, or refuses, to put her finger on why. Efron and Mann have to walk the tightrope of romantic chemistry without ickiness and actually manage to pull it off. Efron is particularly good at switching from pining husband to boy next door at the drop of a hat.
But that’s about it. Despite the story being about Mike’s relation to his kids, they’re not really in it, especially Trachtenberg, who doesn’t do anything but stand around until the last 20 minutes or so.
Steers is actually a pretty good director who’s worked with some challenging material before, but faced with Filardi’s script he seems to have given up. There’s no sense of anything but bad sitcom here, and no one seems to be willing to do anything about.
The good news is Efron can definitely carry a movie on his own; he just needs to be more picky about what he chooses. Any time he and Mann aren’t on screen together is just time wasted, and despite some good scenes, the script is too lazy for anyone to really save.