I’M NOT going to deny it: of course 17 Again (Warner Bros.) is Zac Efron porn. As the younger version of Michael O’Donnell, a character he plays with a mismatched Matthew Perry, he opens the movie shirtless, shiny with sweat, shooting baskets in a high-school auditorium. He’s barely pulled on his clothes when throngs of smiling students file into the bleachers and a gaggle of cheerleaders surrounds him, begging to follow his mad choreography skills. (He leads enthusiastically.) It has all the makings of High School Musical 4: Troy’s Back to Tell You It’s All a Lie until weird, awkward, unexpectedly hilarious things start happening, and 17 Again turns out to be something else entirely.
Everything about this movie is lame and absurd; if those things bother you, there’s no reason to even keep reading. But calling 17 Again lame is kind of like calling Knocked Up “gross”—um, kind of the point. The blessing of its hokum premise—an about-to-divorced husband and less-than-successful father (Perry) follows a spirit guide into a gushing vortex and comes out as his high-school self (Efron)—is a kind of creepy humor that provides endless squirm comedy. Think of it as Judd Apatow for sweet preteens: we endure prolonged jokes about a 17-year-old dancing with his best friend’s mom (actually his wife) and watching his daughter, now one of his classmates, make out grossly and repeatedly with the school’s bad-boy loser. It’s all completely wrong, and yet completely Disney-channel wholesome. (Parents will especially like when the young Michael delivers an impassioned panegyric to love and marriage as condoms circulate around a sex-ed classroom.)
Okay, so this still doesn’t sound very appealing. Maybe it’s the slew of winning performances ranging from the cute and effective (Leslie Mann as Scarlett O’Donell) to the uncomfortably oddball (the ever-awkward Thomas Lennon as Ned Gold, the adult Michael’s nerdy roommate), but somehow this movie transcends its girl-targeted sappiness and parent-targeted positivity. Efron brings it as hard as he ever has, showing some attitude (a smarty-pants, three-point tell-off of the cafeteria bully) and some believable tears (an improvised letter to his estranged wife in the courtroom). But don’t listen to me; maybe I just like an inane, nice little movie after a stressful day of work, or a funny squirm comedy after a brutal disaster like Observe and Report. Maybe you will, too.
IF SERIOUS is your thing, you might want to try Lemon Tree (IFC Films) instead. The latest from acclaimed Israeli director Eran Riklis (The Syrian Bride), it is more perfectly balanced than any global conflict film in recent history. With a cinematic pace and bleak outlook similar to other foreign pictures IFC has brought us this year (including Everlasting Moments), Lemon Tree encapsulates harsh political realities in a gentle personal story, venturing into both sides of the Israel-Palestine line to find the human psyche behind the military posturing.
On the dusty border of the West Bank, Lemon Tree introduces us to Salma Zidane (Hiam Abbass), an aging but pretty Palestinian woman who tends a vast grove of cherished lemon trees, her only means of sustenance. Her serene existence is complicated when Israel’s Defense Minister (Doron Tavory) decides to move right across the border, which means the systematic leveling of any structure that might hide assassins—especially trees. Salma takes her plight to the Israeli courts, where she gets impatient but mostly fair hearings. The legal battle and their uncomfortable proximity draws the attention of the Defense Minister’s lonely wife (Rona Lipaz-Michael), who becomes Salma’s secret ally, quietly subverting the Israeli army’s authority to help her abused neighbor keep the titular plants alive.
Mrs. Defense Minister ends up being Lemon Tree’s most intriguing character, so carefully constructed (and beautifully acted) that she herself sums up the soul-rending nature of Middle East conflict: an inner, human desire to reach out shut down by an outer, larger-than-life political demand. Mira Navon entreats her husband to call off his military attack dogs, but publicly stands beside him when he doesn’t. She makes a habit of bolting from her security guards to visit her neighbor, but is usually removed by force. She grants a sympathetic interview to a newspaper that’s crusading against her husband, but at his demand, signs a letter retracting it. She gets misty-eyed several times as Salma shoots her bitter looks across the fence and the courtroom, but her nationality and position leave her powerless to make amends.
Lemon Tree’s agonizingly placid pace—not to mention its bleak, sun-baked setting—constructs an atmosphere of helpless desperation at which the characters, especially female ones, claw silently. There might be an even more unusual question being quietly posed here: what is it like to be a woman in the Middle East, caught in a constant crossfire of male aggression? Here, the well-to-do Israeli woman is just held just as effectively at bay as her impoverished Palestinian neighbor, both by a culture of unchallenged militarism. As the women look painfully for reconciliation, the men go about the day’s work, which mostly consists of building walls and slinging insults. And everybody goes to sleep feeling that it’s just the way things are.
17 Again (PG-13) opens nationwide Friday. Lemon Tree (not rated) opens Friday at IFC Center in New York.
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