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Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Review: Mean Girls (2004)

* * * 1/2

Director: Mark Waters
Starring: Lindsay Lohan, Rachel McAdams, Amanda Seyfried, Lacey Chabert, Tina Fey

I was well out of high school by the time Mean Girls hit theatres, but the fact that so much of it still rang true speaks to how little things actually change even as things are changing. The accessories are different (I sure as hell didn’t have a cell phone when I was in high school), but the games are the same, and are explored here in a way that effectively combines the real and the satirical. So, if you have yet to experience this gem of a movie, I have but one thing to say: Boo, you whore!

Mean Girls was made during that ever so brief period of time between “Lindsay Lohan, child star” and “Lindsay Lohan, tabloid train wreck” and finds her playing Cady, the daughter of two researchers who has spent most of her life being home-schooled and living in Africa. When her mother (Ana Gasteyer, good but underused here) gets a tenured position at a university, the family is uprooted and Cady is thrust into the hazardous world of high school. She quickly becomes friends with outcasts Janis (Lizzy Caplan) and Damien (Daniel Franzese), and then finds herself adopted by the Plastics, the trio of Barbie-esque girls who rule the school. With Janis’ encouragement, Cady becomes a mole, helping plot to destroy the Plastics from the inside out. The only problem is that before she knows it, Cady has become one of them.

I think it’s safe to say that writer/co-star Tina Fey has, at the very least, a passing familiarity with Heathers, as that titular clique echoes pretty soundly in the Plastics. Watching the two films back to back, it seems to me that Mean Girls succeeds where Heathers fails, because the latter focuses so much energy on trying to shock you. While Mean Girls does descend occasionally into the surreal, as when Cady likens her classmates to animals in Africa, there’s an overriding sense of realism to the story as a whole. Horrifying as it may be to think, people like Regina George (Rachel McAdams) do exist and would effortlessly attract lackeys such as Gretchen (Lacey Chabert) and Karen (Amanda Seyfried).

I would argue that the strongest aspect of this film is its script, which understands teenage psychology well enough to take it seriously even as it is ripping it to shreds and taking careful aim at a few different targets. There’s the obvious target of high school friend/enemy dynamics, the dubious “reclaiming” of words like “bitch” and “whore” by girls who use them as terms of endearment, and a broad lampooning of parents who gladly undermine their authority as parents in order to be their kid’s friend (“I’m not a regular mom. I’m a cool mom!”). The acting is strong, too, particularly from McAdams. There is absolutely no good reason why you should ever feel sorry for Regina (well, okay, maybe when she gets hit by the bus), but personally I always do find myself feeling kind of sorry for her when she’s exiled from the Plastics’ table in the lunchroom. The way that McAdams manages to make that moment work and give it some depth never ceases to amaze me.

While I have a lot of love for this movie, I’ve got to acknowledge that it does have its flaws. The ending is a little preachy, giving a definite sense of a lesson being learned and these scenes don’t really fit seamlessly with the rest of the film. However, even they have their moments (“Do you even go to this school?” “I just have a lot of feelings.”).


Karl Hungus said...

Quite possibly one of the only teen comedies I've seen in a long time that not only made me laugh, but was also a pretty terrific film in it's own right. Good review.

Reel Popcorn Junkie said...

I found the nod to group bonding activities to be quite funny near the film's end. Having each girl publicly apologize and then fall backwards to be caught by classmates was a hoot. Regina's parents don't fare well here. Dad seethes with what he sees, but says nothing. Mom, as you noted, wants to be liked rather than lay the law down when needed.