Photo by Micheal Gibson
Watching Mean Girls with a small sample of its target audience, I wondered whether the discreet and intermittent chortles of these 20 or so high school girls would turn out to be prophetic of the movie’s chances at the box office. I don’t know whether such cheerful maidens stay up, or at home, for Saturday Night Live, or if they noticed that the picture is infested with SNL luminaries on both sides of the camera — notably Weekend Update’s Tina Fey, who wrote the nimble script from a nonfiction best-seller by Rosalind Wiseman with the concise title Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends and Other Realities of Adolescence, and who also plays a tart-tongued teacher in the movie. Or whether they were as surprised as I was by how faithful the movie is to the basic tenets of the high school girlie movies currently proliferating like viruses on studio-release schedules. Namely, that adolescent girls are every bit as mean as, if not meaner than, their male counterparts — that their meanness manifests as passive aggression and verbal bitchery on a scale no pimply boy could aspire to. That the currency of status and barter among the clique elite includes Gucci and Prada, preferably in shades of manic pink. And that the existential dilemma of every girl with an ounce of integrity is whether to succumb to the threats and blandishments of the airheaded in-crowd or stick with the dweeby outcasts.
How the stakes have risen — at least in the kind of high schools likely to make it into Hollywood movies — since my day (girls’ high school, London, early ’60s), when we all wore gym slips with ties and lace-up shoes and God help the girl who showed up in lipstick. In the pop culture of that period, the nice girl was a straight-talking, straight-A’s tomboy in crappy jeans, the dweebs were bespectacled maidens in faded frocks hand-sewn by their mothers, and the clique-y gorgons were underachieving, ultrafemme Goldilocks in frilly frocks by Macy’s.
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Today the song remains the same, but the accessories have scaled up to the point of hysteria — and why not, given that parents nowadays (not just in Beverly Hills) give their daughters breast jobs as high school graduation presents? In Mean Girls, Lindsay Lohan, radiantly freckled but hardly nerdy in T-shirt and jeans, plays Cady Heron, a math wizard newly arrived in a Chicago suburb with her zoologist parents after years of homeschooling in Africa. She’s bright and personable, and abysmally unprepared for the stab-as-stab-can feminine culture of North Shore High School. At first her education is supervised by the class rejects: Janis Ian (Lizzy Caplan), an encouragingly foul-mouthed wench garbed in child-of-Elvira noir and named after the folk-rock star famous for “At Seventeen,” one of the most lugubrious songs of teen angst ever written; and her buddy Damian (played with brio by Daniel Franzese, who gets all the best lines), a chubby lad who’s “too gay to function.” Janis and Damian, whose capacity for survival has been sharpened by routine persecution, have the school’s pernicious culture nailed. Still, their warnings to Cady go unheeded when she’s wooed by the weight-obsessed, Gucci-clad Queen Bee, Regina George (played with kittenish menace by Rachel McAdams), and her two stoolie sycophants (Lacey Chabert and Amanda Seyfried).
Mean Girls is directed by Mark Waters, who also made the hit teen comedy Freaky Friday. Watching his new film, one sees how dependent that delightful movie was on its wicked premise — a mother and daughter forced to switch bodies and lives — and on the antic chemistry between Lohan and Jamie Lee Curtis. In Mean Girls, the dreadful Regina has an amusing mother too, one of those awful women (deliciously rendered by SNL’s Amy Poehler) who longs to be her daughter’s best friend and wears clothes that make her look like mutton dressed up as lamb. She’s no more than a brief sideshow, though, and one yearns for more of the cruel comedy of her relationship with her entertainingly unspeakable offspring.
Lohan is a warm and engaging presence, but she’s completely outshone by the bad girls, and when they’re offscreen, Mean Girls is an oddly restrained, barely plotted movie. Its only unifying premise is Cady’s romance with Regina’s amiable boyfriend (Jonathan Bennett), an afterthought with no visible personality, and her dilemma over whether to lead the Math Club to victory in the championships. It’s as if Waters assembled a bunch of performers — including the wonderful Tim Meadows, who plays the school’s hapless principal — who were born to be thorns in the flesh of the status quo, and instructed them to remain calm at all times and pursue the happy, morally uplifting ending. That’s what you get, I guess, for hitching Saturday Night Live to a faux self-help manual.
MEAN GIRLS | Directed by MARK WATERS | Written by TINA FEY Produced by LORNE MICHAELS | Released by Paramount Pictures Citywide