It's probably the case that the individual's response to 17 Again is primarily a condition of said individual's response to teenybopper idol Zac Efron: how charming and cute does one find him, how satisfying a comic actor, how generally appealing &c. I base this belief on the fact that Efron is in a very, very large amount of the movie, and the whole endeavor seems especially constructed to showcase his transition from the High School Musical Disney ghetto. For myself, I do not have a particularly high opinion of Mr. Efron, and my concurrent opinion of his movie is that it is at best intermittently cute with a couple of really great supporting performances.

The plot: Mike O'Donnell (Matthew Perry) is a miserable S.O.B. with a pointless job that's going nowhere after 16 years and a failing marriage to his high-school sweetheart Scarlett (Leslie Mann), whom he wed after knocking her up senior year. On one particularly lousy afternoon, having been fired and facing down a court date where his divorce will be finalised, Mike visits his old school, remembering the glory days of being the star of the basketball team; while he's wallowing, a spritely old janitor (Brian Doyle-Murray) asks if he wishes to have it all back. Yes, sighs a despondent Mike, and later that same night, he watches as the old janitor apparently jumps off a bridge. Except that the bridge is some kind of swirly gate of magical portent, and it sucks Mike into its maw, spitting him out the following morning in the very body of himself as a seventeen-year-old (now played by Efron, whose resemblance to Perry essentially consists of the both of them being white brunettes).

All the usual trimmings kick in: crazy identity issues when he talks to Scarlett like they've been married for 20 years, and she wonders who is this little weirdo MILF-hunter who looks exactly like the boy she loved all those years ago; Mike gets an opportunity to connect with his emotionally distant kids Maggie (Michelle Trachtenberg) and Alex (Stewart Knight), and fix their horrid problems; Mike has the chance to be a great college baller like he passed up when he married Scarlett back in 1989, which is coincidentally just about the last year that any of this plot might have seemed even vaguely fresh or surprising.

It seems almost sort of pointless to list every single film since 1976s Freaky Friday that has used some variation on the basic adult-in-a-kid's-body framework or its mirror (one of them, a George Burns vehicle, is even titled 18 Again). I do not hold this a mark against 17 Again, which does find some ways to keep things lively. Jason Filardi's dialogue is at least peppy, and filled with more references to teenage boys making out with thirtysomething women than would have been acceptable for much of the last thirty years. When the film bogs down in sweet familial piety, it bogs down hard - but at least the filmmakers seemed to be aware that they were ultimately making a farce, and kept things purring along quickly to suit that.

By far the best thing 17 Again has going for it, though, is three of its supporting players: first up being Leslie Mann, if not necessarily a household name, at least a familiar face from her memorable turns in Judd Apatow's movies (and why not, she's married to him), particularly Knocked Up. Mann possesses one of the keenest senses of comic timing in modern comic cinema, I daresay, even able to wring humor out of moments that aren't even supposed to be gags; and most of her moments in 17 Again are probably just exactly that, although to her credit she is still able to suggest how Scarlett has suffered for these long 20 years just as much as Mike - the combination of funny and sad is absolutely perfect, and it's something that not one in a hundred performers could do as well.

As far as the supporting cast goes, though, it's probably Thomas Lennon who all but runs away with the movie, as Mike's supremely nerdy best friend Ned, a software millionaire with a vast collection of high-geek collectibles, including a bed in the shape of the Star Wars landspeeder, and Gandalf's staff from The Two Towers. Impressively, neither Lennon nor the screenplay ever try to make Ned into a pathetic character or a simpleton, or somebody to look down on in any way; he is entirely successful at life according to his definition of "success", and he's perfectly fine with that. He even gets to chase after a pretty girl, principal of young Mike's school, Jane Masterson, played by the great Melora Hardin of The Office. And Hannah Montana: The Movie, but we'll ignore that for now, and focus instead on how quickly she flips from brittle to sex-kittenish, without ever seeming fake.

Now if, in all that praise for the cast, you didn't see the names "Matthew Perry" or "Zac Efron", you weren't supposed to. Perry just isn't in enough of the movie to make an impression (or justify what I'm sure was not a tiny paycheck). Efron, meanwhile, just doesn't do anything. At least Perry convinces us that he's weary of the world, though it's hard to see why Scarlett wouldn't have abandoned such a wheezy loser years before. But Efron, though he's a damn sight more interesting than in the lamentable High School Musicals, is only vaguely convincing as a man suddenly given a fit, perfect body; a man with tender feelings for his children; a man slowly realising what the last 20 years of his life have actually meant. He's just too callow. About the only thing time that he is convincing is in playing a man hot to trot for Leslie Mann, which is at least a wee bit creepy until you note that a) Efron is 21; b) there is no shame in being hot to trot for Leslie Mann. Really, all Efron has to offer as an actor is being pretty; and for my tastes, it's a very fake, plastic, vanilla pretty that he puts on display, which is likely why he's so popular with the young teenage ladies. He exudes pre-sexuality.

Look, if you go for the whole Zac Efron thing, all is well. Me, I found his blandness to be a crippling flaw from which the movie had no prayer of recovering. And it's not that he's the only problem here; the script is probably bad more often than not, even if some dialogue is punchy and if it manages to dress the musty old concept in occasionally interesting new clothes. It tells a very sloppy story, with several great holes (the biggest: if Scarlett was already preganant with Maggie midway through the 1988-'89 school year, and Maggie is now a senior, how can it possibly be 20 years later?). And director Burr Steers, of the criminally overrated Igby Goes Down, can only barely manage to make the film functional; there's an episodic feel to the direction, like the movie is made up of self-contained capsules rather than chronological scenes.

So basically, 17 Again is kind of bad, although it's just about as good as a bad movie can be. It's vaguely cute, and entirely non-threatening. With a worse actor in the lead, it could have been a much worse movie; I am uncertain that a good actor could have made it better, but I guess I'm glad that no young men of any particular talent wasted themselves in trying.