Today, the first “High School Musical” movie turns 10 years old. You can’t say it’s too early to tell if its Abercrombie-and-abs male lead, one Zac Efron — the costar of this weekend’s “Dirty Grandpa,” in which he parties with Robert De Niro — is secretly a talented thespian. After all, he’s been in the game the 1989 TV movie “Triple Play.” He should have figured what he can do out by now — or at the very least we should have what we think about him figured out.
And yet it’s still hard to tell. This much we do know: When he’s making fun of himself and his bro-ish stature, he’s very good. When he popped up as a Pabst-crushing, devious frat lord in “Neighbors,” it was seen as a revelation. Not only did he prove a fine, smarmy foil to Seth Rogan’s discombobulating young dad, but he quietly telegraphed a real panic: Maybe boozing through college was his peak. Maybe he can do nothing but take his shirt off. You could even sense the real Efron freaking out underneath his perfectly sculpted figure and six-pack abs.
He had good reason to worry: When he’s tried for serious and/or indie roles — in Richard Linklater’s “Me and Orson Welles,” in Ramin Bahrani’s “At Any Price” — he was bland and vacant. Lee Daniels used that well in his reliably insane “The Paperboy,” in which the pretty boy did little but bop about in his tighty-whities and, in one scene we still can’t believe exists, got peed on by Nicole Kidman. (He’d just been stung by a jellyfish. It totally makes sense.) When he tried to cut loose, with the rom-com “The Awkward Moment,” he came off as heartless, not funny and charming. (Please read Bilge Ebiri’s brilliant review, which jokingly reads it as a dark drama about a predatory sociopath.)
And yet this summer he surprised us again. Yes, everyone hated the DJ drama “We Are Your Friends,” and it had one of the worst openings of any wide release in history. But Efron actually found a touching soulfulness to his young, precocious and foolish aspiring music maker, subtly — subtly! Zac Efron can be subtle! — conveying that point in dumb youth when we realize everything we assumed about ourselves and our futures is wrong. It suggested he might, in the right hands, as he comes upon his 30s, evolve into a strong dramatic actor — or at least better than he was as a soldier in the Nicholas Sparks outing “The Lucky One.” Watch this space. (Matt Prigge)
Bonus: A look back at Zac Efron’s early days, by Emily Laurence
’17 Again’ (2009)
Before Zac Efron started ambitiously taking on roles, hoping to garner comparisons to Leonardo DiCaprio, he was happy to take shallow parts typecasting himself as the pretty boy heartthrob with funny one-liners. It’s a card he played well and “17 Again” is fun to watch. In the movie, a 37-year-old guy named Mike (played by Matthew Perry) is reincarnated as a 17-year-old (played by Efron). Efron is good at comedy, even back then. It’s hard not to chuckle as he lectures teen girls on the importance of self-respect.
‘Charlie St. Cloud’ (2009)
This Nicholas Sparks adaptation was an unfortunate turning point for Efron. Even though comedy is where he shines, he took on this more serious role about a young sailor who talks to his younger brother, who died in a car crash. In order to fall in love and move on, he must say goodbye to his brother. The movie is so cheesy it’s hard to watch. While the movie doesn’t allow Efron to showcase his comedy skills, it at least let him flaunt his other greatest asset: his abs.
‘New Year’s Eve’ (2011)
Even with a long list of big names, including Hilary Swank, Sarah Jessica Parker and Jessica Biel, “New Year’s Eve” is best watched by high-school girls at a slumber party. Hey, that’s not a bad specialty to have. In this movie, he plays a delivery dude tasked with helping a record exec (played by Michelle Pfeiffer) complete a list of crazy resolutions before midnight. It’s certainly not a movie meant to change Efron’s life, but at least he’s back to doing what he does best: serving as the humorous eye-candy.