Hollywood loves recycling. Not paper, plastic, or glass—it loves recycling ideas. This weekend, it’s treating us to the latest in a long line of comedies about adults and teenagers who magically switch bodies, 17 Again, starring teen heartthrob du jour, Zac Efron.
17 Again is one of more than half a dozen films with plots that involve adolescents and adults landing in new corporeal surroundings. The first was 1976’s Freaky Friday with Jodie Foster, but there’s also the 2003 remake with Lindsay Lohan, Tom Hanks’ Big, Jennifer Garner’s 13 Going on 30, and a trifecta of mediocre late ‘80s movies about father-son and grandfather-son swaps, Vice Versa, Like Father Like Son (starring then teen pin-up, Kirk Cameron), and 18 Again.
The upside of Hollywood’s penchant for making teen-adult body-swapping flicks over and over and over again, besides the fact that they're pretty reliably amusing, is that it provides us with a timeline of what we thought were the pros and cons of adolescence and adulthood from movie to movie, year to year.
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In each of these films, an overworked, aggravated adult or a mollycoddled, put-upon adolescent magically gets to see how the other half lives. Hijinks ensue. The protagonist then realizes he had the better deal originally, and returns to his chronologically appropriate form with a new appreciation for his lot in life. 17 Again hews to this formula (it’s essentially Big in reverse), but though its plot is old, its conclusion is new: Being a teenager is way more fun than it used to be. In fact, it’s pretty much all fun, all the time. Why would anyone ever want to be an adult?
In the films that came before 17 Again, being a teenager was a drag. “I can’t eat what I want, I can't wear what I want, I can't keep my hair and nails the way I want,” Jodie Foster moans in Freaky Friday. Kirk Cameron’s dad refuses to comprehend that he really, really doesn’t want to be a doctor. The kid in Big suffers petty humiliation upon petty humiliation, including being too short for all the cool carnival rides. Being a teen’s so hard, one might reasonably wish to be “30 and flirty and thriving” instead, just as the girl in 13 Going on 30 does after her humiliating birthday party.
And adolescence isn’t just frustrating for teenagers in these films—it’s objectively difficult. All the grownups who find themselves newly housed in pre-pubescent digs have a hard time adjusting. Teachers condescend to them, parents ignore or smother them, classmates beat them up, and peers pelt them with garbage and dirty looks if they seem too smart.
Instead, it’s adulthood that’s a blast. Teenagers have to do what they're told, and grownups, or rather teenagers who look like grownups, do not. When Kirk Cameron turns into his father, he immediately maxes out his dad’s credit card on hideous Miami Vice threads and gets wasted trying to pick up chicks. When Fred Savage becomes his father in Vice Versa, he takes himself and a date to the heavy-metal concert his father forbade him to attend. Tom Hanks bags himself an enormous apartment and jumps on trampolines all night.
Of course, being an adult in switcheroo movies isn’t all fun: “When you’re a grownup people don’t tell you want to do, you have to tell yourself what to do,” the mother in Freaky Friday explains. All the kids placed in older bodies are initially overwhelmed, often far more than their switched parents. (If, like Big and 13 Going on 30, the film is pushing the “It’s important to retain a childlike sense of wonder” lesson, the kid learns to cope with adulthood quickly and successfully. If the film is selling the “Walk a mile in someone else’s shoes” lesson, like all the movies with a parent-child double swap, the kid only barely gets the hang of maturity.) That’s the point of these films: Adulthood and adolescence are both hard, in different ways.
But in 17 Again, adolescence is easy. Adulthood is the bummer. The film opens in 1989—Mike, played by Efron, is a Big Man on Campus (The film begins with a shot of Efron shirtless, shooting hoops. He participates in a dance routine a few minutes later. The fan-girls must be sated). He’s a popular basketball player with a beautiful girlfriend—unfortunately, she’s pregnant.
“As far as this movie is concerned, there is absolutely nothing about one’s 30s—not trampolines, not getting to set your own bedtime, not the legal ability to purchase alcohol—that beats being a teenager.”
Fast-forward 20 years and Mike, now played by former Friends star Matthew Perry, is a 37-year-old father who never went to college, just lost his job, is on the verge of divorce, and is generally bitter about his entire life. Mike longs for his glory days and the local janitor happily grants his wish. Lo and behold, Mike is… 17 again. (The weirdo janitor is actually a vast improvement on the “mystical others,” Native American and Nepalese, respectively, who facilitate the switches in Like Father Like Son and Vice Versa.)
Mike can’t get over how great he feels in his new 17-year-old skin. “We’re all in such great shape!” he chortles to some of his classmates.
This is in stark contrast to movies where the older (not the teenage) bodies are fetishized: In Freaky Friday, Jodie Foster can’t get over her mother’s stunning figure and nice teeth. Meanwhile, her mother can’t figure how she’s going “talk through all this scrap iron” in her new mouth full of orthodontia. In Vice Versa, when Fred Savage becomes his father, he is tickled to discover he’s now got some junk in his trunks. And Tom Hanks gets laid in Big because of his new frame.
(True, in 1988’s 18 Again, George Burns, who plays an 81-year-old grandfather who takes over his shy grandson’s body and loves it, is more psyched even than Efron’s Mike to have a fully functional, young body. But he’s 81 and hasn’t been able to bend over properly for at least a decade. It seems worth noting that in 1988, 81 seemed a reasonable age at which to wish to recapture one’s youth. In 2009, that age is 38.)
And Mike does more than run laps without breaking a sweat. He fits right in. After a brief setback when he comes to school dressed like Kevin Federline, he figures out what to wear, and rides up to school in an expensive car and stylish duds, looking exactly as attractive as Zac Efron always looks, down to his perfectly coiffed bangs. No one gives him a hard time, except for a jerk that Mike personally picks a fight with. Girls like him and he makes friends easily, including with his loser son. He gets onto the basketball team. He’s effortlessly cool.
Somehow he doesn’t even have homework. In 17 Again, high school is exactly as relaxing and fun as the mom in Freaky Friday thought it was—before she actually had to attend for herself.
“Gone is the message pushed by the previous switcheroo films that with great freedom comes great responsibility. Instead, we should all just wish to be Zac Efron, forever and ever.”
So why on earth would Mike decide to go back to being the slower, fatter, grumpier version of himself? Well, he misses his wife. That’s sort of sweet—that Mike would give up a charmed existence, a basketball scholarship, and a six pack for his girl—but it’s disconcerting that 17 Again can’t come up with one other thing about being 38 that’s better than being 17. As far as this movie is concerned, there is absolutely nothing about one’s 30s—not trampolines, not getting to set your own bedtime, not an interesting job, not the legal ability to purchase alcohol, not better sex—that beats being a teenager. This does not bode well for turning 50.
17 Again is the first body-swapping movie not to make the case for the perks and pains of both adolescence and adulthood. It just makes a pitch for puberty and suggests that when you inevitably get older—what, you don’t have a mystical janitor on call?—you should have some babies to take the edge off. Gone is the message pushed by the previous switcheroo films that with great freedom comes great responsibility, and as a person gets older they get to enjoy more of both. Instead, we should all just wish to be Zac Efron, shiny haired and glistening, forever and ever.
Willa Paskin is a writer and former editor of Radar magazine. She lives in New York City.