Mean Girls (PG-13) ★★

Review Date: January 12th, 2024

Mean Girls, like 2023's The Color Purple, is a reminder of Hollywood's ongoing taste for self-cannibalism. Not content merely to take a known property and send it to the stage as a musical, the industry has taken the play, re-made it as a movie, and brought it back to theaters. Although there have been rare occasions when this approach has actually worked (Little Shop of Horrors, for example), Mean Girls is not one of those. Remove the musical elements and the 2024 version, directed by newcomers Samantha Jayne and Arturo Perez Jr., resembles an amateurish imitation of the 2004 original. Add in the mostly-awful songs and it becomes an in-your-face assault on the senses.

As high school satires go, the 2004 Mean Girls was mediocre - although aspects were worthy to share the playing field with better films like Heathers and Election - with the sickly sweet Kumbaya ending undercutting its message and smoothing out its edges. In re-shaping it for a 20th anniversary revival, screenwriter Tina Fey has mostly kept the storyline the same (although the inclusion of social media involvement is a welcome update). None of the actors, excepting perhaps Auli'i Caravalo, overshadows their predecessors and the musical aspects (second-rate, badly synched songs combined with Kenny Ortega-inspired dancing) distract to the point of pulling the viewer out of the story. Every time the movie settles into a groove and begins to work on a dramatic or comedic level, someone starts singing. And there's not a hummable or otherwise memorable tune to be found.

Prior to attending North Shore High School, 16-year-old Cady Heron (Angourie Rice) was home-schooled in Kenya. As a result, her introduction to the cliques and social landmines of a public school come with difficult life lessons. After a rough first day, she is befriended by outsiders Janis (Auli'i Caravalo) and Damian (Jaquel Spivey). Much to her surprise, she is beckoned over to the regal lunch table by Regina George (Renee Rapp), the school's Queen Bee, who sits with her sidekicks, dumb Karen (Avantika) and insecure Gretchen (Bebe Wood). They are the "Plastics," so-called because of their hard, fake exteriors. Much to her surprise, Cady is granted not only an audience but the opportunity to hang out with them. Regina's stated goal is to "improve" Cady, but it's really more of a big practical joke. When Cady develops a crush on Regina's ex-boyfriend, Aaron (Christopher Briney), who sits in front of her in calculus class, the gloves come off and Regina shows her claws.

The main cast is comprised of entirely new actors, many of whom fall into the "fresh face" category with little big screen experience. Angourie Rice brings a likeable sweetness to Cady the recalls the same qualities evinced by Lindsay Lohan, although she's not quite as believable once the character enters bitch mode. Renee Rapp is suitably loud and over-the-top as Regina. Avantika and Bebe Wood are fine as Regina's cohorts, but there's nothing memorable about the performances. One standout is Auli'i Caravalo (perhaps best-known as the voice of Moana in the animated Disney film of the same name), who has energy and passion to match her character's volcanic personality. Tina Fey and Tim Meadows reprise their roles from the original film while Ashley Park and Lindsay Lohan contribute cameos. (Rachel McAdams reportedly discussed an appearance with Fey but no agreement was reached.)

One difficulty faced by any stage-to-screen musical, regardless of its pedigree, is finding the right way to blend the songs with the dialogue so that they merge rather than fight one another. Mean Girls fails in this regard. Putting aside the "why bother?" question associated with any remake of such a recent production, the haphazard fashion in which the movie has been assembled argues that this should have been left on the stage where the energy associated with a live production can cover all manner of missteps. The original plan was for Mean Girls to debut directly on the Paramount+ streaming service. That probably would have been a better home for something this disjointed.

© 2024 James Berardinelli