You have to give Hollywood credit. In a time of raised expectations in productivity all across the American economy, they don’t disappoint — they consistently churn out the same mediocre product year after year. Occasionally, though, a gear slips and somehow a film squeaks through that is lively or subversive enough to reinvigorate a tired formula. Is Mean Girls this movie? Well, it’s at least very close.
Mean Girls re-teams Mark Waters and the charming Lindsay Lohan, the director and star of last summer’s Freaky Friday. This is a very good start. The two worked well together in that film; Waters expertly hit all the requisite comic and sappy notes while showcasing remarkable performances by Lohan and Jamie Lee Curtis. Lohan has a remarkable range for an actor of her age, and Waters knows how to use it.
In Mean Girls, she shows several new sides. Her Cady Heron starts off sweet and guileless, a naïve girl who is attending public school for the first time, having previously been home-schooled by her parents, both research zoologists. After 12 years in Africa, the Herons are taking teaching positions at Chicago University and have decided Cady needs to be with other kids her age. Great idea, folks.
She’s first befriended by the school’s artsy outcasts, Janis (Janis Ian, to be exact, a well-chosen inside joke) a goth-girl who may be a lesbian, and Damian, a teddy bear of a guy who’s “almost too gay to function.” Though Damien is standard gay stereotype, Daniel Franzese invests the character with so much warmth and humor that you can’t help but like him. Constrained by his height (he’s 6’3”) and his stocky build, Franzese was relegated to standard big-dumb-guy roles in Bully and Party Monster, so it’s nice to see him doing something different, and doing it well. Still, Damian is yet another neutered gay male, the one character who is never given a love interest.
Despite her initial awkwardness, Cady’s girl-next-door beauty attracts the attention of the Plastics, Regina (Rachel McAdams), Gretchen (Lacey Chabert), and Karen (Amanda Seyfried), vapid, selfish “teen royalty” who offer Cady a Pygmalion makeover and a chance to join them at the top of the social totem pole.
Cady’s not interested, but Janis, who wants revenge for an old hurt, persuades her to infiltrate the Plastics so that she, Cady, and Damian can mock them. Eager to please her new friends, Cady becomes a double-agent, eventually playing her role so well it becomes unclear even to her which is her true self.
The basic story elements are familiar from such films as Clueless, Jawbreaker, and Heathers (which was written by Waters’ brother Daniel), as well as every afterschool special about the pitfalls of teens trading their souls for popularity. The screenplay here, by “Saturday Night Live“‘s Tina Fey, strikes a balance between the candy sweetness of Clueless and the black humor of Jawbreaker and Heathers, focusing less on the girls’ milieu and over-plotted reversals of fortune and more on the psychology of what makes adolescent girls willing to do anything for popularity.
Is it the culture’s sexualization of ever-younger girls, as we see when Regina’s little sister (she looks to be about eight) dances suggestively while watching music videos and lifts her shirt during a Girls Gone Wild-type advertisement? Is it poor role models, such as Regina’s overpermissive, surgically enhanced mother (well-played by SNL’s Amy Poehler)? Is it a lack of any kind of parental involvement (Cady and Regina are the only characters whose parents get any screen time, though it’s repeatedly mentioned that Gretchen’s father made his fortune by inventing toaster strudel). It’s all of those things, of course, and none. Whatever your particular belief on the issue, the amazing thing is that a formulaic teen comedy raises any issues at all.
While making the audience think, Fey’s script remains well-paced and consistently funny throughout; even during the inevitable third-act reversals, the laughs keep coming. She also makes a wise decision as a performer, downplaying her familiar snarkiness. Her Ms. Norbury is sympathetic, almost sweet, the kind of teacher that we all had, or wish we had, who sees what Cady is capable of and pushes her to live up to her potential.
Producer Lorne Michaels has stocked the movie with other current and former “Saturday Night Live” cast members, but they don’t overwhelm the younger stars. Poehler is just right as the oversexed Mrs. George and could have had more scenes. Tim Meadows is good, though perhaps too restrained. And the often-hilarious Ana Gasteyer is underused as Cady’s mother, as is Neil Flynn as her father, whose role is so small he barely registers at all.
The movie is smart and perceptive about the messages our culture sends to young women, and about how they, like all of us, tend to respond in predictable ways. Unfortunately, the script, too, responds all too predictably to its standard setup. There’s a lot here to enjoy, but too few surprises.
Jeremy C. Fox is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society. You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()