Movie review by Greg Carlson
Shrewdly, Saturday Night Live head writer and Weekend Update anchor Tina Fey insisted on adapting Rosalind Wiseman’s non-fiction book “Queen Bees and Wannabes” without a phalanx of more “seasoned” screenwriters to offer their guidance and support via unnecessary rewrites, deletions, and additions. Scripts by committee often yield disastrous results, and while Fey doesn’t have a feature film track record, her solo writing proves to be consistently sharper, funnier, and more intelligent than virtually everything else that is supposed to pass for comedy at the multiplex. With “Mean Girls,” it is immediately clear that she will be invited to write more movies.
While “Mean Girls” never erupts with the kind of vicious satirical edge that made its psychological predecessor “Heathers” one of the greatest teen movies ever made, it still manages to outpace all the other recent films aimed at the youth market. This is not to say that “Mean Girls” lacks chops in the social commentary department – on the contrary, its observations on the cruel high school caste system are nearly always astounding in their authenticity and acute in their familiarity.
Lindsay Lohan, directed once again by “Freaky Friday” helmer Mark Waters, plays Cady, a smart home-schooler whose researcher parents raised her mostly in Africa. After relocating to the Chicago area, Cady is eager to try out the public school system, but learns immediately that everyone is divided into cliques of varying power and popularity. Just when she seems poised to give up, Cady is adopted by a pair of colorful, interesting, outcasts. Janis (Lizzy Caplan, calling to mind a young Janeane Garofalo) and Damian (Daniel Franzese) provide Cady with a brand new education: the finer points of the school’s social pecking order.
The most potent and poisonous crew in the student body, dubbed the Plastics, is a terrible trio accomplished in the art of backstabbing, manipulation, and mind games. Leader Regina (Rachel McAdams) parcels out her favors and insults in equal measure to fawning subordinates Gretchen (Lacey Chabert) and Karen (Amanda Seyfried). Urged by Janis to infiltrate the shrill tribunal in order to set up sweet revenge for a junior-high-era falling out that severed the one-time friendship between Janis and Regina, Cady finds herself not only welcomed into the Plastics’ inner circle – she discovers that it is a pretty good place to be.
Fortunately, the remainder of “Mean Girls” takes almost all the right turns, and the presence of Fey (as a weary math teacher), as well as other SNL associates like Tim Meadows, Amy Poehler, and Ana Gasteyer, assists the delivery of the keen dialogue. Lohan is well-cast as the central character, and the other actors in the teen roles turn in impressive performances. Peripheral “mathlete” Kevin Gnapoor (Rajiv Surendra) is so funny in his scenes, one wishes he had been given a much bigger part to play. The movie breaks a little sweat trying to push the theme that teenagers should be nicer to one another (not likely to happen), but one can hardly blame Fey for giving it a shot; her quirky, detailed observances are savvy, skillful, and so on the mark that she deserves a little time to get serious.
This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 5/3/04.