* Efron comedy "17 Again" takes in $24.1 million
* Russell Crowe thriller "State of Play" overshadowed
* "Crank: High Voltage" disappoints at box office (Recasts, adds quotes)
LOS ANGELES, April 19 (Reuters) - "High School Musical" heartthrob Zac Efron graduated to the big leagues at the North American box office on Sunday as his new comedy crushed a weighty thriller starring Russell Crowe.
"17 Again," in which Efron plays a dispirited 37-year-old family man who gets to relive his glory days at high school, earned a better-than-expected $24.1 million, distributor Warner Bros. said.
Crowe's "State of Play" opened at No. 2 with $14.1 million, but managed to exceed the modest expectations of its distributor, Universal Pictures.
Last weekend's champion, "Hannah Montana: The Movie," fell to No. 4 with $12.7 million, taking the 10-day haul for Walt Disney Co's (DIS.N) Miley Cyrus vehicle to $56.1 million.
Just ahead of it, the family cartoon "Monsters vs. Aliens" held steady at No. 3 with $12.9 million. After four weekends, the DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc (DWA.O) production has earned $162.7 million, making it the biggest movie of the year so far.
Also new was "Crank: High Voltage," a sequel starring British actor Jason Statham. It opened at No. 6 with $6.5 million. Pundits had expected the thriller to do better than "State of Play."
While "17 Again" is the latest in a long line of body-switch comedies including such hits as "Big" and "Freaky Friday," its producers had their cake and ate it too by poking fun at the genre.
"I don't think we tried to play the earnest version," said producer Jennifer Gibgot, who originated the project after working with Efron in "Hairspray."
Critics were generally kind to the picture, which also stars "Friends" veteran Matthew Perry as the adult version of Efron, and Leslie Mann as his wife.
Warner Bros., a unit of Time Warner Inc (TWX.N), said it had been hoping for an opening in the low $20 million range, and was heartened by preliminary data showing that the PG-13 movie was playing to a wider audience than the 9-to-12-year-old tweens who made Efron a star in the "High School Musical" franchise.
EFRON AS LEADING MAN
Gibgot said her goal was to show that Efron, 21, could be a leading man. She envisaged future roles for him in smart thrillers or the sort of movies that made Michael J. Fox a star, like the "Back to the Future" series.
"State of Play," on the other hand, was dogged by the same challenges that have befallen other adult-oriented thrillers, such as "Michael Clayton" and "Duplicity." Older audiences generally don't flock to the cinemas on opening weekends, and may wait for the DVD.
"Adult films don't rock the box office," said Nikki Rocco, president of domestic distribution at Universal, a unit of General Electric Co's (GE.N) NBC Universal.
But she said "State of Play" was off to a solid start, and she hoped it would hold up well over the next few weekends.
The $60 million movie, based on a BBC miniseries, stars Crowe as a grizzled reporter who investigates a political conspiracy. The cast is rounded out by fellow Oscar-winner Helen Mirren as his editor and Ben Affleck as a politician. Critics were effusive in their praise.
"Crank: High Voltage," which did not screen in advance for critics, was released by Lionsgate, a unit of Lions Gate Entertainment Corp (LGF.N). A spokesman was not immediately available for comment. The first film, "Crank," opened to $10.5 million in 2006 and ended up with $28 million.
Overall sales rose for the fourth consecutive year, when compared to the year-ago weekend, according to tracking firm Media By Numbers. Year-to-date sales are up 17 percent at $2.9 billion, placing the industry on a firm footing ahead of the summer movie-going period. "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" kicks off the lucrative season on May 1. (Editing by Eric Beech)