The tart and often charming new comedy Mean Girls, which opens nationwide today, is a version of the heart-of-darkness teenage social comedy Heathers for the tweener audience. One of the few films that Lorne Michaels, the producer of Saturday Night Live, can be proud of, it has the ambitious and cartoony dark side of a Disney Channel sitcom, with a lively and talented young cast headed by the cherubic Lindsay Lohan.
Tina Fey, a performer and head writer for Saturday Night Live, has deftly adapted Rosalind Wiseman's nonfiction dissection of teenage girl societal interaction, Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends and Other Realities of Adolescence. Fey gives her screenplay a stylized vitality, though she adds a be-yourself finale that, while standard for such movies, doesn't seem in keeping with this picture.
It's the kind of bored manipulation you come to expect from the Plastics, the pack of hallway-shrewd and glamorous teenage queens who use subtle terror to rule the high school that Cady (Lohan) attends. It's her first brush with socialization, since Cady was home-schooled by her zoologist parents while traveling in Africa.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF UIP
Since most of Mean Girls consists of the outsider Cady observing the tribal rites of her new setting and laying it all out in narration, this movie is just like home for the meticulous and ruthless deadpan that Fey has perfected for the satirical Saturday Night Live newscast in which she and Jimmy Fallon are the anchors. This also gives us a chance to see exactly how bright Cady is without a hint of condescension, because the conduct of American high school kids is totally foreign to her.
Cady calls high school "a stressful, surreal blur." She can't do anything right, and a scene of her hiding during lunch and eating her sandwich in a stall has the feel of observation that Cameron Crowe went out of his way to develop in his nonfiction book Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which he adapted for the screen. Ridgemont High and Mean Girls share a fascination with the rules that simultaneously bind and separate high school students. But Fey is careful to mosey around the footfalls left by sharp and enduring teenage comedies like Ridgemont High and even Election without repeating their strategies.
Cady's potential is spotted by two warring factions. The goth-tinged and flamboyantly sour-tongued Janis Ian (a pinpoint-accurate turn by Lizzy Caplan) and her equally quick-witted gay friend, Damian (Daniel Franzese), take to Cady and walk their new friend through the school's societal minefield. "You're a regulation hottie," assesses Janis.
Cady's innocent good looks also bring her to the attention of the regally self-infatuated Regina George (Rachel McAdams) and her fellow Plastics members Gretchen (Lacey Chabert) and Karen (Amanda Seyfried). Putting Cady through a down-low and low-down session of mind-games that serve as a de facto initiation, Regina decides reluctantly to offer the new girl a spot with the Plastics.
Cady's introduction to Regina and her squad ranks as a classic of comic tension. After Cady reveals a crush on Regina's ex, the decent Aaron (Jonathan Bennett), the twittering Gretchen tells Cady she can't act on it -- "That's, like, the rule of Feminism."
Janis and Damian encourage Cady to infiltrate the group so they can savor all the dirt their spy can uncover, as well as set a divide-and-conquer plan in motion. As Cady steps into Plastic world, she ruefully questions its existence while happily caught in its gravitational pull. "It was better to be in the Plastics, hating life," Cady notes with a hint of disbelief.
Though narrative cohesion isn't the strength of Mean Girls, which works better from scene to scene than as a whole, the intelligence shines in its understanding of contradictions, keeping a comic distance from the emotional investment of teenagers that defined Ridgemont High and later the adolescent angst movies of John Hughes. (Like Hughes's writing, Fey's combines comic practicality and a fascination with the cruelty born of suburban privilege.)
The sureness of tone in the script achieves such clarity that our sympathies remain with Cady even as she begins to become what she has beheld. She has a genuine taste for it, the trap for all double agents. (Sometimes, the film is like a teenage version of the undercover mob saga Donnie Brasco.) But Mean Girls concentrates primarily on its eccentric and funny small touches, like an exchange between two jealous Korean girls or the electric car parked in Cady's parents' driveway.
Cady's loving but distracted mom and dad are played by Ana Gasteyer and Neil Flynn, who adds affection to the dizziness he shows as the janitor on Scrubs. Other Saturday Night Live cast members, past and present, include Gasteyer; Amy Poehler, flinging herself into playing Regina's desperate-to-be-cool mother; and, as the school principal, Tim Meadows, who reveals a savvy, weary dignity that he never had a chance to display in all his years on Saturday Night Live'. (These supporting performers are also skilled improvisational actors, like Fey, who shows up as a frazzled but sane teacher.)
The director, Mark Waters, working with a smart casting team, has assembled a superb group of players. Scene by scene you can't help being impressed by Mean Girls; it's like a group of sketches linked by a theme, with some playing much better than others. For all its touches, the film does at times begin to seem as if it has the easily diverted attention span of one of its archetypal high school kids. You feel a little like a scold for wanting it to buckle down and concentrate.
Directed by: Mark Waters
Lindsay Lohan (Cady Heron), Rachel McAdams (Regina George), Tina Fey (Ms. Norbury), Tim Meadows (Mr. Duvall), Amy Poehler (Mrs. George)
Running time: 97 minutes
Taiwan Release: today
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