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Get In, Loser: “Mean Girls” Musical Expands the Brand

Cinema | January 22nd, 2024

By Greg Carlson

gregcarlson1@gmail.com

The new “Mean Girls” movie, based on the Broadway musical that was in turn inspired by the 2004 film directed by Mark Waters, originated with Rosalind Wiseman’s 2002 book “Queen Bees and Wannabes.” All three adaptations were written by Tina Fey, who reprises her onscreen role as math teacher Ms. Norbury. Along with an avalanche of puff pieces and side-by-side comparisons debating the relative merits of the various incarnations, publicity surrounding the feature directorial debut of Samantha Jayne and Arturo Perez Jr. has covered everything from the marketing strategy downplaying the film’s status as a musical to Lindsay Lohan’s “hurt and disappointment” at the use of a particular term that may or may not have been directly leveled at the star of the first version.

Both “The Hollywood Reporter” and “Variety” used the colorful description in their headlines, indicating more than anything that the tried and true technique of drumming up mock outrage and much ado about little is alive and well in the movie business. In the new “Mean Girls,” Angourie Rice – who was so brilliant as the daughter of Ryan Gosling’s character in “The Nice Guys” that she just about walked off with the movie – plays Cady Heron. Rice is fine as the naive transplant from Kenya, although Lohan remains the definitive Cady. In parallel with Rice’s sweetness and light, the revision sands off some of the edges of the 2004 telling in favor of a more inclusive and less offensive product.

The core plot points and principal characters arrive virtually intact. The previously homeschooled Cady struggles to learn the rules for survival among the cliques of North Shore High, forging friendships of fluctuating strength with queer-identifying outsiders like Janis (Auliʻi Cravalho) and Damian (Jaquel Spivey) as well as the squad of Plastics composed of Regina (Reneé Rapp), Karen (Avantika), and Gretchen (Bebe Wood). To additionally complicate social expectations, Cady falls hard for Regina’s ex Aaron (Christopher Briney), feigning mathematical ignorance to set up opportunities for one-on-one tutoring.

The most devoted followers of the stage version will mourn the loss of many of the songs written by Jeff Richmond and Nell Benjamin, who shuffled, shifted, and cut to meet the demands of a reasonable movie runtime. In some cases, it is clear that decisions were made in part based on vocal skill (when in doubt, let Spivey sing), even though the less-trained convey a particular charm. “Everything Is a Remix” guru Kirby Ferguson will have a field day with the updates; over the course of two decades, some things have changed radically while others have remained entirely the same.

This new “Mean Girls” feels somehow safer, even if Tim Meadows is effortlessly funny no matter the era. A small number of happy surprises and cameos pop up next to Fey and Meadows, but Amy Poehler, who played Mrs. George, is sorely missed (Busy Philipps steps into the role). Other updates, like the intensified incorporation of social media apps and current technology, are par for the course. Judging by the enthusiastic reaction of current teenagers, however, the themes of “Mean Girls,” including issues of bullying, self-image, and self-worth, are evergreen. 

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