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Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

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Let Zac Efron Be Great

Hollywood has a real, live movie star on its hands — and no idea what to do with him

Ten years ago, a singing jock named Troy Bolton and a shy but musical whiz kid named Gabriella Montez met by chance at a holiday karaoke party, a safe space for Miracle Mop haircuts and glittery cardigans. They were chosen at random — anointed, really, by a roving spotlight that plucked them from anonymity and forced them to sing what, in the Disney Channel playbook, amounts to a mid-tempo jam: a Kidz Bop–ready crooner in the Simpson-Lachey mold, aptly titled "Start of Something New." For Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens, and for the Disney Channel most of all, "something new" is inevitably what that movie was. High School Musical was a record-breaking smash hit (7.7 million people watched the premiere telecast) with two successful sequels, a direct-to-video spinoff (Sharpay’s Fabulous Adventure), and a never-aired spinoff series (Madison High). (There’s a fourth installment, sans Efron or Hudgens, on the way this fall.)

Should that first movie have been called He’s All That? A few of High School Musical’s stars had compelling careers afterward, but nothing that holds a match to Efron’s. He’s the best-case scenario for teen idolhood, a standout Disney talent whose appeal and breadth and endurance surpass the brand. It was apparent from even the brazen (for Disney) first scene of that first movie, when a sweaty Efron shoots hoops shirtless, just because, and the camera lingers the way it would later on in his career, when he’d become a man. Well, not "just because": There was something there, and Disney saw it. His mop-top swagger would be bottled and sold to everyone from Justin Bieber and the Jonas Brothers to every boy my stepsister had a crush on growing up. Efron himself was only so original to begin with. He was a clear descendant of stars like Jonathan Taylor Thomas and Mark-Paul Gosselaar.

But Efron surpassed them both. His appeal could be weaponized by Disney to destroy the ratings game in a way other stars’ hadn’t. HSM’s other cast members made considerable contributions, of course, but Efron’s eyes and voice and build were singularly important to the Disney formula, and so were those Covergirl lashes of his, and so was that Hollywood-megawatt charm, above all, that magnetism he seemed unable to turn off, so strong it almost knocked Hudgens off the stage during their first duet.

To see Efron in High School Musical is to see what he had the potential to become. To see him in 2016 is to see that the potential mostly paid off, but in complicated ways. He’s a man now. Older, wiser. Ten years into his career as a Hollywood icon for the millennial set, he’s already weathered a stint in rehab and the bout with Hollywood self-hatred that incited it. He’s made mistakes — and been forgiven. Now, he swims with sharks and quotes Bruce Lee the way other people quote Nietzsche. He’s got an ethos Elle magazine calls "the Zen of Zac," and he’s got a body that speaks to his discipline, the result of a lifestyle rigorous enough to win the admiration of Dwayne Johnson.

Hollywood bullshit, maybe, but in the case of Zac Efron, you sense that he really did grow up. He’s a major talent — yes, really — living and creating in the era of the Hollywood man-child, and it’s thanks to his own recent history, to say nothing of his Disney roots, that he knows a thing or two about playing that part. We tend to speak of the man-child as if it were a straightforward concept rather than as the mess of competing impulses it undeniably represents. It’s a divide with broad cultural reach, a condition rooted in how we think about gender, age, social worth. And the apex of its appeal, its most endearing but not uncomplicated form, is Zac Efron.

Efron’s lane isn’t one extreme or the other, the full-fledged adult or the socially underdeveloped child, but rather the space between. He’s that meme-mythic "man who can do both": His distinctly sensitive sex appeal out-charms most leading men of his generation, but he just as handily beats the current masters of juvenile humor at their own game, in part because of his persona’s other half. It’s an unusual mix, handled with a deft ease that recalls old-fashioned movie stars. And that’s what Efron is. He’s a Hollywood leading man in an era that doesn’t have much need for them — another contradiction.

So, then: coincidence, or deliberate bookend? In this year’s Dirty Grandpa, a movie released almost precisely 10 years after High School Musical, Efron starred as Jason Kelly, who, like Troy, sows the seeds of romance in an agonizingly cute duet. (This time, it’s "Because You Loved Me," drunkenly performed alongside love interest Zoey Deutch.) Jason is a twentysomething lawyer who must choose between being the photographer he wants to be and the high-achieving but subsidiary yes-man lawyer his father has in mind. This is, of course, precisely the archetype that jump-started Efron’s career: a boy caught between his own dreams of singing and his father the basketball coach’s dreams of winning.

It’s a throwback, in other words, practically an Easter egg. And it arrives, suggestively, in an anniversary year on the star’s résumé. It’s a chance to take stock, and, taking stock, here’s what we find: What felt in 2006 like the star-making role of a lifetime feels in 2016 like a rut. It’s as if Jason Kelly were Troy Bolton: Grown-Ass Man Edition™. And it’s as if the essential inner conflict these characters share — the pull between bro and sensitive man of experience — were the essence of Efron himself.

What became of Troy Bolton after high school? You wonder because you know that guy. He was the one on top of the world by senior year, Icarus at 18, set to crash and burn before the rest of us had liftoff. The enduring promise, and curse, of landing Troy Bolton as a breakthrough role is that the rest of us would always wonder who Troy might become as he aged — and, by extension, who the guy playing him might become. And every entry in Efron’s diverse array of roles since 2006 feels like a valid answer to that question, a separate track in a post–East High Choose Your Own Adventure.

That’s the joke at the center of 17 Again, a post–High School Musical project in which a Troy Bolton–esque basketball stud gets his girlfriend pregnant and, 30 married years later, wakes up as Matthew Perry. So that’s one option. It’s the joke at the center of 2014’s Neighbors, too, in which "Troy" (actually named Teddy) is a fraternity president who managed to extend his high school celebrity just long enough to rule another campus universe.

You can reimagine Troy Bolton’s future as a character in any one of Efron’s movies, and it likely works. He joins the Marines and survives three tours in Iraq only to fall prey to the quicksand of a Nicholas Sparks romance when he returns home. He falls in love with Nicole Kidman and she pees on him. He’s an affianced lawyer who accidentally smokes crack, gets naked at a college party, and rubs a stuffed bumblebee strapped to his crotch on the coeds — Troy, is that you?

Nowadays, Efron speaks about his High School Musical–era self with disdain. He told Men’s Fitness last month that he wants "to kick that guy’s ass sometimes," referring to himself and his alter ego in the early blossoms of fame. Unfortunately for him, all roads seem to lead back to that role. There’s a piece of that guy, a piece of Troy, in whatever he does. No matter the role, you can sense it: a lingering sensitivity mixed in with that popular jock confidence, a soft ingenuity in his eyes, apparent even as he’s covering himself in meat grease to give a lap dance. Efron’s hard to picture as an outright villain — the closest he’s come is Neighbors’ Teddy, who’s a menace but a likable failure, above all, an endearing man-child. He’s hard to picture in gritty roles, too. You watch the war scenes in The Lucky One, the Nicholas Sparks movie, more worried he’ll trap grit in those eyelashes than that any true bodily harm will befall him.

Blame it on his youth. Thank it, rather. The secret to Efron’s appeal is that he can’t help but be appealing, no matter the role. This is particularly true of the artist-bros he so often plays, whose dual personalities neatly map onto contemporary culture’s man-child divide but, in Efron’s hands, have the potential to become something richer. Even his newest movie, Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, features Efron as an insufferable party bro, on paper — he and his juvenile older brother (Adam DeVine) post a viral Craigslist ad looking for nice dates to their sister’s wedding, at their family’s insistence, because they’re rowdy fuckups — who is nevertheless an aspiring artist. The wonder of it is that, somehow, Efron pulls it off, finding a middle ground between poignant, creative intelligence and a raucous, shirtless, juvenile personality.

It’s the archetype he’s come back to again and again in his career. It doesn’t always work. To be fair, the failure of last year’s EDM drama We Are Your Friends had as much to do with the thinness of the script as with Efron’s inability to sell the idea that a guy who looked like that would struggle to find his way in the world. And yet, even there, the failure to muck up his boyish glamor feels central to the movie’s point. We Are Your Friends is a lifestyle advertisement, a targeted ad in your browser window. It’s not an exercise in realism: It’s the Hollywood rendition. It’s the Big Mac in the commercials — steamy, plump, and nothing like what you get in real life, but enticing enough to make you forget that.

And knowingly so. It is not an especially insightful film, but it at least understands Efron’s importance to the movie-magic apparatus. It understands that Efron slings a good Big Mac. He is a ’50s star in a millennial body, the best kind of special effect. He doesn’t belong to reality, even to the reality of a bro, but he’s an essential component of a movie about one. He belongs on screen, where life is better, more desirable, than the real thing.

That’s Hollywood? At least, that’s what Hollywood used to be. Actors like Efron are seemingly of another time and tradition. Among youngish male stars, maybe only Channing Tatum compares in the classic stars’ looks-and-charm department, though I’m also keeping an eye on Alden Ehrenreich and Michael B. Jordan, and some will want to make a case for guys like Tom Hiddleston.

Maybe. But Tatum comes to mind because he’s playful, a grown man with a buoyant spirit that can’t help but read as young. Whereas Efron, who came of age alongside a decades-long trend in "male infantilism," as David Denby put it, comes off as a growing one. Maybe that’s Efron’s secret: He can be both man and child because he always seems to be in transition. Persona-wise, he’s still growing up. And he grew up at an ideal moment, taking off as other, older men, particularly in comedy, were regressing. They carved him out a lane and he’s largely stuck to it. Is he stuck? He can more than hold his own next to performers like Seth Rogen and Adam DeVine, current masters of immaturity. He can take off his shirt and grind on college-age women and, thanks to his ability to play both sides, still convince us in Brooks Brothers, with a side part or an Ivy League, cock-strutting from here to there like a newly minted JD/MBA but also, somehow, a nice guy.

That’s substantial. No one does it quite the way he can; no one in Hollywood has the power to translate a familiar and easily disliked set of tropes into pure magnetism with quite his ease. Is it enough? It isn’t enough for the box office (though most movie stars aren’t these days). Efron once hinted at a desire to go far — to be in better movies, with richer roles, like his ancestors, the pretty men of the Hollywood of yore, Paul Newman among them. Even before the release of High School Musical 3: Senior Year, he was waiting for the next big break, the next "something new," a role not promised or foreseen by Troy Bolton (he turned down a Footloose remake for that reason) and so were we.

The verdict, in 2016, is that we’re still waiting. Is there life beyond the binary? Post-Troy, post-bro? A decade into his career, Efron’s double-jointed persona has been subject to enough telegraphed screenwriting and directing that he’s become the thing phoned in. He’s always good, always interesting, always a pleasure to watch. A fresh face after all these years. It’s about time Hollywood gave him something fresh to be.

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