Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Movie Review: ‘Mean Girls’ is a Shadow of the Original

Directors: Samantha Jayne and Arturo Perez Jr
Writer: Tina Fey
Stars: Angourie Rice, Renée Rapp, Jon Hamm

Synopsis: Cady Heron is a hit with the Plastics, an A-list girl clique at her new school when she makes the mistake of falling for Aaron Samuels, the ex-boyfriend of alpha Plastic Regina George.

Somewhere in between Mark Waters’ 2004 film scripted by Tina Fey there was a slew of high school comedies. High school comedies are a genre unto themselves. Musical high school comedies possibly reached peak popularity with Ryan Murphy’s television show Glee. In 2024, audiences are given the filmed version of the musical (book written by Tina Fey) and it is basically the Glee-ification of Mean Girls

The baseline to any successful filmed musical has one primary element to consider; are any of the songs memorable? If the answer is no, then the movie hasn’t done its job. While the music written by Jeff Richmond and Nell Benjamin might be a great live experience, it doesn’t do much as it translates on screen, but it also doesn’t fail dismally. Directors Samantha Jayne and Arturo Perez Jr. have assembled a mostly talented cast (the standouts being Auliʻi Cravalho, Jaquel Spivey, Renée Rapp, and whatever screen time is given to Avantika), but they’ve made the film so toothless it doesn’t capture what made Mean Girls 2004 so imminently quotable and relatable.

For anyone unfamiliar with the story, it goes as follows. Cady Heron (Angourie Rice) has lived in Kenya most of her life with her academic mother (Jenna Fischer). She was home-schooled in Kenya, and dreams of a new world where she can meet people her own age. That “dream” comes true when Mrs. Heron and Cady relocate to Chicago and Cady is enrolled in North Shore High School. Finding high school more impossible to negotiate than the open plains filled with predators and prey in Kenya, Cady soon finds out that cliques exist, and they are dangerous.

In the musical, the film is opened and closed by “narrators” Janis ‘Imi’ike (Auliʻi Cravalho, also known as the voice of Moana) and Damian Hubbard (Jaquel Spivey), two openly queer outsider students. Their number “A Cautionary Tale” is possibly one of the wittiest pieces of original music. On Cady’s first day they notice that she has no idea how to fit in anywhere and ends up eating lunch in a bathroom stall. They take her under their wing and tell her to avoid, at all costs, The Plastics. Especially “Queen Bee” Regina George (Rapp). The remaining two Plastics are the emotionally fragile but attention seeking Gretchen Wieners (Bebe Woods) and dumb as a box of hair Karen Shetty (Avantika).

Somehow, Cady attracts the attention of Regina and is given the opportunity to sit with The Plastics on a probationary period. Janis, nursing a long-standing wound about how her former friend Regina treated her, sees this as an opportunity for Cady to act as a double-agent and help destroy her nemesis and the school’s “Apex Predator.” Cady is torn because she thinks Regina and The Plastics might not be so bad after all, until she falls for Aaron Samuels (Christopher Briney) and Regina “steals” him from her. Thus, Cady becomes, over time, the person planning Regina’s downfall and becoming her replacement.

Inevitably Mean Girls 2024 is going to be saddled with comparisons to the original film, especially as a lot of dialogue is recycled from it. Tina Fey and Tim Meadows reprise their original roles from the first film. Principal Duvall is still wearing a cast on his arm. Ms. Norbury is still trying to get students to engage with advanced calculus. They do adequate work in a film they are well aware is sanitized to the point of being toothless; there is a line when rapper and mathlete Kevin Ganatra (Mahi Alam) does his Beastie Boys x whatever performance at the school talent contest that makes it clear that everything needs to stay PG-13.

While the film is more openly queer and representative of high school in the 2020s (or 2017 when the musical was first performed) it loses the essential message of the first film by erasing most of the language that Fey was using to get her point across about the damage young female identifying students to others. Without the words “slut” and “whore” the basic premise is that if young women use these words to describe other young women it makes it okay for guys to also.

The thesis of Fey’s original adaptation becomes so watered down that it barely registers. Mean girls are supposed to be mean. They are supposed to be harmful. Renée Rapp looks like she could physically snap anyone in two, but her mind games are played down. Her dissatisfaction with her Plastic Mom (Busy Phillips) is the excuse given for her behaviour. Gone is Rachel McAdams’ pure vindictiveness and anger.

Unfortunately, the weakest link is Angourie Rice as Cady. Because the audience is supposed to follow her obsessional journey from nervous and pleasant outsider to Plastic through song and dance instead of written character development it just seems like a too quick pivot. Angourie is a talented performer and has managed to carve out quite a career for herself in America, but Cady is a role ill-suited to her. 

By far, the best characters are Janis and Damian; with Jaquel Spivey outpacing his filmic counterpart Daniel Franzese. Damian singing the iCarly theme song en français at the Christmas Concert better than Regina George landing with a thud after the ‘Rockin’ Around the Pole’ number. And although Janis ‘Imi’ike might lack a little of the sustained rage of Janis (Sarkis)Ian (Lizzie Caplan) it’s her song “I’d Rather Be Me” which is the best summation of the musical’s themes.

It is possible to hold the opposing views that a film is both entertaining and disappointing. Mean Girls 2024 is a prime example of the phenomenon. It is entertaining. Most of the jokes still land and some of the new ones aren’t bad. The addition of “internet virality” is apropos to the contemporary period. Hashtag #coolmom (like and follow) who is living through her daughter. The Burn Book still exists. The losers still get in the car to go shopping. You can’t sit with us, and hair is so big because it’s filled with secrets and there is that one person who still “Doesn’t even go here.” There are some meta-textual flourishes and of the moment cameos (and one that will delight fans of the original film).

Gretchen Wieners is played so sympathetically that instead of just going to form another clique she can rule over she has the awakening that maybe she’s actually deserving of more. Character growth is what the original film was about, but Gretchen was the example of a character who didn’t grow or change. 

So, we circle back to the question, is Mean Girls 2024 successful? The answer is a tepid yes and no. There is some excellent choreography and staging, but it isn’t as impressive as one would hope for a big screen adventure. Does it do much more than remind us how the original film spoke to a generation of people? It really doesn’t. Mean Girls 2024 can’t be called a bad film per se, because that’s underestimating the parts that are polished and fun. But if we consider Senior Year a Netflix original basically trod the same path in 2022 (and examined the same themes of internet popularity, teen competition, etc.), Mean Girls 2024 doesn’t do a lot to add to the ongoing conversation about bullying, personal responsibility and authenticity. It’s fine – but it’s not cheesy fries good and it’s not “basically feminism.”

Grade: B-

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