‘Mean Girls’ Review

It’s hard not to look at the new Mean Girls adaptation as a cash grab of a cash grab. Released 20 years after the iconic 2004 film, the newest iteration is based on the already-unnecessary musical from 2018. There’s not much this version could add to the story beyond updating with the show’s mostly-forgettable songs and adding modern references from social media – something no one wants. As expected, Samantha Jayne and Arturo Perez Jr.’s update adds very little to the timeless tale, and inevitably neuters both the musical and the film in the process. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out there’s enough skill in the filmmaking and acting to keep the film alive.

Based on Tina Fey’s seminal 2004 high school classic, Mean Girls follows new girl Cady Heron (Angourie Rice) as she attends a suburban high school for the first time after years of homeschooling. After initially befriending outcasts Janis (Auli’i Cravalho) and Damian (Jaquel Spivey), Cady find herself into the popular clique, The Plastics, led by the terrifying Regina George (Reneé Rapp). However, after facing Regina’s ire, Cady, Janis, and Damian concoct a scheme to rid the school of its apex predator once and for all.

Everything that’s off with this Mean Girls update can be found in the bad CGI realm of the opening Africa number. The film is modernized in almost entirely the wrong ways. Useless CGI, an emphasis on TikTok, and yet little actual emphasis on understanding the world of modern-day bullying. Tina Fey has updated her script with musical numbers and current references, but in doing so, she has lost the edge that made the show feel honest and raw. The result is a regurgitation of so many lines and scenes audiences will obviously remember, yet sanitized of any edge that made it relatable. Why bring back classic dialogue if “social suicide” is going to become “socially ruinous?” Why do the Kevin G rap if you’re going to tone down the context? Sanitizing the material doesn’t make it modern; it makes it lame.

Yet while the film often fails at its attempt to adapt and retell its story of bullying, teenage cruelty, and friendship, it does succeed in a rather surprising way: Jayne and Perez are true-blue musical directors. Mean Girls has some of the most excitingly staged musical sequences since…I’m not sure. La La Land? High School Musical? Chicago? Indeed, there is certainly a strong connection to the 2002 Best Picture winner, given the decision to stage many of the musical numbers as the naive Cady’s fantasies. This really shouldn’t come as a major surprise – the duo’s series of shorts on FX titled Quarter Life Poetry were one of the most exciting discoveries of 2019.

Jayne and Perez manage to focus on the spectacle of the dance numbers in such a way that it distracts from the musical’s disappointing lyrics. “Apex Predator” and “Revenge Party” are confidently staged and electrifying to watch. Karen’s Halloween opus “Sexy” is an absolute joy to witness, cinematically and in terms of choreography. “I’d Rather Be Me” is an exhilarating one take performed perfectly by Cravalho. And Rapp sings the hell out of her big song “World Burn,” which features cinematography far too confident in a movie of this caliber. There’s even a terrific, very 30 Rock joke involving a Tina Fey musical number. This is a confident, exciting film, and if anything, it speaks to two directors whose stock should only continue to rise.

On that note, it should come as no surprise that talented singers Cravalho and Spivey are the real stars of the show. They bring their musical numbers to life, and their sequences are far and away the lifeblood of the film. I’m not sure I completely agree that Cravalho is totally believable as Janis, but her vocal performance on “Revenge Party” and “I’d Rather Be Me” is more than sufficient. Spivey, meanwhile, is a formidable Damian – I dare say he’s the film’s best performer. I also want to praise Rapp, whose star power more than makes up for the fact that she never really feels like Regina (her performance doesn’t really find life until well into the film’s third act). Whereas the other characters’ delivery of Gen-Z dialogue sounds forced (even if they are the right age group), it feels real coming from Reneé.

The rest of the performers range from “fine” to “yikes.” Bebe Wood is seriously undercut as Gretchen Wieners (the scene-stealer of the stage play), but plays her part admirably. Rice, meanwhile, gives an incredible performance as Cady, work which is ultimately tarnished by her lack of singing ability. Still, at least she can command a scene – Avantika’s dancing can’t make up for her bland take on Karen, and Christopher Briney is milquetoast as Aaron Samuels, forcing you to realize he looks like 30-year-old Michael Showalter playing a teenager in Wet Hot American Summer. I won’t even comment on the adults, since Tim Meadows and Fey basically just repeat their same performance from 20 years ago, but I will say Busy Phillips as Regina’s Cool Mom is inspired.

Mean Girls is a strange, mixed bag of a film. It is a prime example of everything that can go wrong with remakes and updates, proving that timeless is more efficient than timely. After all, it’s never good when the best thing you can say about the acting is “Man, this makes me appreciate the nuances of the original cast.” But regardless of all that, it’s hard to deny that this is a lively, entertaining story in any form. And when two directors are this willing to try on the spectacle of a musical number, who am I to beat them up too hard? I guess the takeaway here is that Mean Girls: The Musical, like “fetch,” is not going to happen, but it certainly could be worse.

C+

Mean Girls is now playing in theaters nationwide

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