Mean Girls is our classic on this week’s Everyone’s a Critic Podcast and that inspired me to seek out my original, 2004 review of Mean Girls for the now defunct website, GuesstheGross.com. Gross in this case meant box office gross, it wasn’t a website dedicated to guessing the titles of Italian horror movies, though that would have also been a good use for that name.
May 2nd, 2004
Rosalind Wiseman’s book “Queen Bee’s and Wannabes” is a sociological study of the lives of teenage girls. The book covers important teenage girl topics like cliques, fashions, friends, sex and drugs and provides parents with helpful advice for understanding their teenage daughters. I’m told it’s a good read, entertaining even, but as a non-fiction book, it was an unlikely and difficult choice for a big screen adaptation.
This difficult task fell to Saturday Night Live head writer Tina Fey whose challenge was to create characters and a story arc from what were essentially intellectual observations of behavior. The characters and the story had to incorporate the book’s many important themes and ideas. Oh, and it had to be funny.
Lindsey Lohan stars as Cady Heron who, for her entire school career, has been home schooled…in Africa. Her parents are Zoologists who have decided to move back to America and enroll their daughter in a real high school. Once inside poor Cady must navigate the wilds of high school cliquedom from the popular kids to the nerds to the various sub-groups of each. Cady quickly realizes that high school is quite similar to the African bush with any number of obvious and hidden dangers. The jungle comparison is a good joke the film uses more than once.
After a rough first day Cady finally makes friends with a pair of outcasts, Janis (Lizzy Caplan) and Damian (Daniel Franzese), who help her navigate the difficult waters. The first lesson is to avoid the “Plastics,” the meanest clique in the school and also the most popular. The plastics are three super hot girls, Regina (Rachel McAdams), Gretchen (Lacey Chabert) and Karen (Amanda Seyfried), who run the school. Later when Cady is being harassed in the lunchroom Regina saves her and the Plastics invite her to join there clique.
Though Cady isn’t quite comfortable with the Plastics way of belittling people and their constant focus on clothes and their bodies, Janis tells Cady to stick with it as a way of exposing the Plastics as the evil that they are. However once inside, being popular becomes kind of fun for Cady and her time as a double agent becomes more and more out of control until she has alienated pretty much everyone.
The film sets up along the familiar territories of high school movies but with Tina Fey’s sharp-eyed observations sprinkled in along the sides. Fey, who also has a small role as a teacher, uses this setup for a number of outside the plot observations, the best of which are quick parody of the stereotypical home schooled kid. Also, Amy Poehler of SNL shows up in the role of the Mom who desperately tries to be her daughter’s friend entirely at the expense of being good mother.
Fey’s observations are witty, smart and at times a little uncomfortable. Tackling the thorny issue of teenage sexuality, Fey glosses over the rough spots but makes a very cutting observation of how teenage girls in the post-Britney era have become hyper-sexualized. Check the scene where the Plastics with Cady perform a dance routine to the tune of Jingle Bell Rock wearing outfits more at home in a strip club. Any adult male who is not a little bit disturbed by this scene needs to take a step back and imagine that it’s your daughter on that stage. The point hits home quickly.
Many reviewers have drawn comparisons between Mean Girls and the 80’s classic Heathers because both films share a cynical edge. Heathers is far darker than Mean Girls but it’s not a bad comparison. I would like to introduce a different comparison between Mean Girls and a high school movie of a very different genre, Thirteen. With it’s serious source material, Mean Girls addresses some of the same issues as Thirteen but from a comic perspective. Both films detail the way new friends shape how a young girl becomes a woman and how a seemingly normal teenage girl can in a short time can become an entirely different person.
Being a comedy, Mean Girls cannot give these issues the depth that Thirteen has. But as a funhouse mirror version of Thirteen, Mean Girls has value to it beyond entertainment. I like how Mean Girls avoids melodrama while acknowledging it’s serious source material. Serious for parents of teenage girls who may find watching Mean Girls, and it’s candy coated satire, a convenient way to raise important issues with their daughters.
Most importantly, though, the film is funny. Tina Fey has a quick wit and a great ear for satire. With so many characters to manage, the character development tends to get lost but each of the actors is likable enough to sell the jokes and the character types they inhabit. Lindsey Lohan shows the same acting chops and comic touch that places her a step ahead of her teen rivals Hillary Duff and Amanda Bynes. If Lohan can continue to choose good material, she could have a very good future.
It’s Tina Fey however who may have the brightest future. Taking the themes, observations and conclusions of a non-fiction book and creating characters and a story arc that employ those important elements and managing to make it funny is a monumental task. For the most part, she succeeds. The film lacks a realistic edge to provide a real catharsis, especially in it’s ending which raps up a little too neat, but it’s still funny and smarter than most comedies of recent memory