Photo: REX USA/Stewart Cook.
Zac Efron has officially graduated. With last weekend's release of the smash hit Neighbors, the bright-eyed, mop-topped teenage fantasy from the High School Musical series has been replaced by an obnoxious, keg-swilling frat bro, and, frankly, we couldn't be happier.
Making the transition from teen idol to serious thespian is one of the most difficult career paths to navigate for a young actor in Hollywood. While actors like Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio managed to pull it off, there have been far more who have failed. (We're looking at you, Taylor Lautner.)
So far, Efron's post-Tiger Beat career hasn't gone exactly as planned. After hanging up Troy Bolton's gym shorts once and for all, Efron gave the song-and-dance routine one final go in the big-screen version of Hairspray, which, very tellingly, is still his biggest hit to date. Since then, Efron's career has been somewhat all over the place. There were the generic comedies 17 Again and New Year's Eve; the contrived, serious fare like Charlie St. Cloud, The Lucky Ones, and Parkland; and, in a move similar to all actors searching for legitimacy, the requisite shoestring indie films like The Paperboy and Me and Orson Welles.
Though none of Efron's movies hit it big with critics or audiences, they didn't turn him into a laughingstock either. In fact, the opposite happened. Efron was seen as an actor willing to take creative risks and work for the respect of his peers and audiences rather than rest on the genetic laurels that made him an American icon in the first place.
Photo: Courtesy of Universal Pictures.
When news of Efron's issues with substance abuse and rehab stints emerged last September, it was the first real scandal of the young star's career. But, rather than tarnish his image, Efron's struggles humanized a man who was once perceived as something of a cardboard cutout. It also coincided with the latest stage of Efron's career: the bro.
That Awkward Moment was Efron's first real attempt at playing a dude's dude, and it didn't go so well. The material was tepid, and the jokes fell flat. Guys have never rooted for Efron, so buying him as a romantic lead in a raunch-com geared toward men was a bad idea from the beginning.
That's what makes Efron's casting in Neighbors so brilliant. It's based on the notion that the average man resents him for being a genetic freak who looks like he was engineered in a lab. Starring as a hard-partying frat boy, Efron knows his job is to make men hate him, and he clearly revels in it. Everyone loves an actor who has a good enough sense of humor to skewer his or her own real-life persona, and in Neighbors Efron is in on the joke.
He also gets major cred for aligning himself with comedy's current class of cool kids. When Efron's Neighbors costar Seth Rogen visited Howard Stern last week, he had nothing but praise for his new buddy. Rogen admitted that, like most men, he wanted to hate Efron but found the actor charming, self-deprecating, and very self-aware. News also broke that Efron took a major pay cut to appear in Neighbors, proof that he's committed to finding the right material.
Despite the fact that Efron is 26 years old and has been in show business since he was a teenager, his turn in this comedy still feels like his breakout role. Neighbors made an eye-popping $51 million its opening weekend and will no doubt go on to become the biggest hit of Efron's career to date. Next up, he'll star in the thriller The Associate, from legendary director Adrian Lyne and based on the best-selling book by John Grisham. It will be telling to see if audiences are once again willing to accept him in more grown-up fare. If not, Efron needn't worry: Neighbors 2 is all but guaranteed.