There was a time when Zac Efron was only known for his teen-friendly films, smooth dance moves and Bieber-esque hair (before Justin Bieber was actually a thing). But throw a rock these days and it'd be hard to miss an Efron role in the latest bro-comedy.
In this weekend's Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, Efron adds another tick to the raunch-com column as he plays one half of a hard-partying brother duo who find themselves outwitted (or rather out-dumbed) by two women. It's the latest sign of a clear shift in film choices for the 28-year-old actor.
Over the last two years, hard-R funny films like Bad Neighbours have ingratiated the once-polarizing star to a whole new audience - including his own co-stars.
Seth Rogen, who has starred with him in two films, said in a radio interview, "I thought I would hate him because he was the star of a Disney musical franchise and ... I just assumed he would be an obnoxious (expletive).
"But he wasn't at all - he was very nice and charming and very kind of self-deprecating and I remember thinking like 'Damn, he actually seems like a cool guy.'"
Aubrey Plaza, also a two-time co-star, joked to Elle that she's "on this Zac Efron train right now. I'm just riding it to the top."
That train has taken numerous turns over the last decade. After finding clear success in the land of bubblegum musicals (the High School Musical trilogy; Hairspray), there was a dive into more indie fare (Me and Orson Welles; Liberal Arts; The Paperboy; At Any Price; Parkland) peppered with sappy, big-screen fluff (Charlie St. Cloud; New Year's Eve
; The Lucky One.)
But Zefron clearly feels comfortable when he's playing a somewhat more dimwitted, funny, shirtless guy, as evidenced by his latest string of films: the Neighbors movies, Dirty Grandpa, Mike and Dave and the upcoming Baywatch adaptation.
Efron has clearly found his niche, and critics have noticed. In The Washington Post's film review of Mike and Dave, Stephanie Merry notes that Efron is "well on his way to establishing his comedy chops."
The A.V. Club's review of Bad Neighbours 2 serves mainly as a platform to gush over the "surprisingly great" actor, who "imbues his handsome-dope routine with such nuance that (the character) is not only funny but also touching ... What could have been simplistic self-parody becomes a genuinely, almost confusingly terrific performance."
The blue-eyed star's looks have always been inextricably linked to his career, but instead of continuing to fight against beefcake typecasting, Efron has learned to lean in. It seems as though filmgoers - especially men - are more willing to accept him as the shirtless bro once they realize he has the actual comedic ability to back up those chiseled abs, and the self-awareness to allow said abs to be the butt of the joke.
Box-office stars like Channing Tatum and Chris Pratt both illustrate the journey that Efron may be able to take if he plays his cards right. Pratt went from playing a lovable oaf on shows like Everwood and Parks and Recreation to a sex symbol with a sense of humor in Guardians of the Galaxy, which started a whirlwind of blockbuster success.
Tatum began his career as a model before dancing his way into our hearts in Step Up, but it seemed to be his comedic part in 2012's 21 Jump Street, in which he was "sublime at playing dumb," that carved the path for him to do Oscar-nominated films like Foxcatcher.
By building up good will with audiences now, it's likely that if and when Efron does make the leap to more serious and dramatic fare, the transition will be easier.
It's all in the timing: When he tried his hand at more low-budget, indie-type films before, it was quite early in his career and those outside the Disney demographic still didn't know who he was. He hadn't earned their trust that he could and/or deserved to carry a movie.
Finding the groove that fits him best - no matter how dumb the characters he now plays may be - allows Efron to showcase his comedic timing and natural talent, and reminds us why he got so famous in the first place.