Mean Girls (United States, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Although Mean Girls is likely to be frequently compared to Heathers, and perhaps occasionally to Election, the movie it most strongly reminds me of is 1999's Jawbreaker. All four of these films offer a darkly satirical perspective of high school and popularity, but, while Heathers and Election follow things through to the bitter end, Mean Girls, like Jawbreaker, loses its comic momentum before the closing credits roll. In this case, the ending is more sappy than happy and gives us the sense that the screenplay betrays its origins in order to avoid an unsettling denouement. As a result, Mean Girls works for its first three-quarters, then implodes as it approaches the finish line.

In high school, more than at any other time in life, you are judged by your friends. There's a clique for almost every type of student - even the loners have their exclusive group. In the lunchroom, you are where you sit, and, if you don't fit in, you're not invited. The high school pecking order, which favors good looks and brawn over brains and glasses, dictates that jocks, cheerleaders, and would-be models are royalty, while members of the chess club are to be avoided as if they carry a social plague. Most students eventually happily settle into their niche, but even the most anti-establishment would be lying if they claimed never to toy with thoughts of what it might like to be popular. Because popularity means power, friends, dates, and favors, and when you're a teenager, what could be better?

Mean Girls introduces us to Cady Heron (Linday Lohan), a 16-year old girl who is going to high school for the first time. After being home schooled for most of her life by parents who traveled all around the world, Cady is finally getting a chance to enter a suburban Illinois hell of peer pressure and hormones. Her first day is a disaster - the only one to pay any attention to her is her math teacher, Ms. Norbury (Tina Fey). But, on day two, a couple of outsiders befriend her. One is a goth girl named Janis (Lizzy Caplan) and the other is an overweight gay guy named Damian (Daniel Franzese). They teach her the ways of the school jungle, which, as it turns out, isn't that different from the African jungle where Cady spent some of her life.

Then, unexpectedly, Cady is invited to sit at the table of the three "plastics" - the high school's queen and two princesses. Their leader, Regina (Rachel McAdams), isn't only the prettiest and most popular girl in school, she's also the biggest bitch on campus. She is served by her two handmaidens, shallow Gretchen (Lacey Chabert) and dumb Karen (Amanda Seyfried). For reasons of their own, the plastics decide to induct Cady into their small group. She's not interested, but at the urging of Janis and Damian, she goes along with it so she can sew the seeds of dissention from within. Meanwhile, Cady falls for tall, dark, and handsome Aaron (Jonathan Bennett), one of Regina's exes. This, along with Cady's growing popularity around school, creates friction within the plastics and eventually pits Cady against Regina. The ensuing battle includes numerous dirty tricks.

Although it may not initially look like one, this is, at least to some degree, a Saturday Night Live movie. Mean Girls was written by (and co-stars) Tina Fey, who adapted the screenplay from Queen Bees and Wannabees by Rosalind Wiseman. SNL alum Anna Gasteyer has a part (as Cady's mom), and SNL creator Lorne Michaels owns a producer credit. The director is Mark S. Waters, who brought Lindsay Lohan with him from Freaky Friday. This role represents something more edgy than the teen idol is used to; it may prove to be the stepping-stone she is looking for to introduce her to more sophisticated parts. She's very good here, developing Cady into a likable individual without losing the character's edge. It helps that Rachel McAdams (The Hot Chick) is in full-on bitch mode as her adversary, Regina. Lacey Chabert and Amanda Seyfried are also effective playing types. And, in a supporting part as the school's principal, Tim Meadows steals scenes with his perfect comic timing.

I would have liked Mean Girls more if it had followed the Heathers/Election mold and not gone into compromise mode during the final fifteen minutes. Somewhere in the closing half-hour, Mean Girls gives up on being a comedy and decides to morph into a traditional teen movie, complete with a moral about the value of true friendship and the need to be oneself. The limp climax doesn't undo the solid humor, wicked social commentary, and delicious satire that precedes it, but it leaves an unpleasant aftertaste. In the end, Mean Girls isn't mean enough.

Mean Girls (United States, 2004)

Run Time: 1:30
U.S. Release Date: 2004-04-30
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Content)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1