Mean Girls Turns a Smart Classic Comedy into an Overbearing Movie Musical

Mean Girls Turns a Smart Classic Comedy into an Overbearing Movie Musical

It’s become a given that nearly any movie comedy, drama, or 1960s oddity—Little Shop of Horrors, The Color Purple, Legally Blonde—can be turned into a hit musical. From there, it’s logical to turn those musicals into movies of their own; at the very least, it’s a way to revive older material for new audiences. But there’s something to be said for knowing when to leave well enough alone. The movie musical version of Mean Girls—written, like the 2004 movie that spawned it, by Tina Fey, and directed by Samantha Jayne and Arturo Perez Jr.—is so overworked and garish that it exists on a plane of its own. Everything that made the original picture so sly, funny, and affecting is gone. Musical numbers spell out the obvious, and loudly. Characters behave reprehensibly and then use faux feminism as a shield—a strange flip from the original story, which made the case that bitchiness and honest self-expression aren’t the same thing. Even lines drawn straight from the original feel more cumbersome than breezy. Musicals—certainly this type of musical—are supposed to be pure pleasure, but Mean Girls comes off as enforced fun, a kind of bullying disguised as entertainment.

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Angourie Rice stars as Cady Heron, a guileless teenager who’s transplanted from Africa, where she’s been living with her zoologist mother (Jenna Fischer), to another kind of jungle: an American high school. She’s unsure how she’s going to fit in, but two friendly, artsy misfits take her under their wing. Janis (Auli’I Cravalho) and Damian (Jaquel Spivey) provide a friendly place for her to sit in the lunchroom, helping her to distinguish among the school’s various cliques, and urging her to avoid one in particular. The girls known as the Plastics, they tell her, are the snobbiest, nastiest girls in school and not to be messed with. There’s Karen (Avantika), who’s pretty but not God’s brightest bulb, and Gretchen (Bebe Wood), who’s catty but also secretly vulnerable. The ringleader of all three, and the most feared, is Regina George (Renée Rapp, who played the role on Broadway and who also starred in HBO’s The Sex Lives of College Girls), a blonde Amazon in lacquery lip gloss, who doesn’t bother to hide her disdain for everything and everybody, not even her alleged friends. She makes her entrance with a self-satisfied purr in the number “Meet the Plastics”: “My name is Regina George/ And I am a massive deal/ I don’t care who you are/ I don’t care how you feel.”

This is how musicals work: characters don’t just express feelings, they belt them out in an expository blast. Even if it seems jarring or absurd at first, you can usually slip into the groove if the performers and the material are engaging enough. But Mean Girls, rather than taking flight, just keeps grinding away. When the Plastics take an interest in Cady, deciding she’s pretty enough, and malleable enough, to be one of them, she’s reluctant to join their group. But Janis and Damian talk her into it, the three of them eventually concocting a plot to take revenge on Regina, who humiliated Janis in sixth grade, publicly accusing her of being a lesbian. Meanwhile, Cady—a math whiz—falls hard for a cutie in her calculus class, Christopher Briney’s Aaron. Regina pretends to put in a good word for Cady with Aaron, who she used to date, though all she’s really doing is restaking her claim on him. That spurs Cady to try out being a mean girl for herself, as a way of getting back at her backstabbing frenemy.

All of these characters and plot points are elements of the original movie, but somehow, none of that picture’s charm and little of its intelligence have survived the transition. Maybe the architecture of the modern musical is to blame: actors can’t just be subtly appealing; they have to fill the room, or the screen, with aggressively enthusiastic singing. A gorgeous tone and a knack for phrasing are no longer enough; you’ve now got to have those dreadful things known as pipes. Once in a while in Mean Girls, almost miraculously, a number almost works. (The music is by Jeff Richmond, Fey’s husband, with lyrics by Nell Benjamin.) The disco-inflected “Sexy,” led by Avantika’s Karen and staged via a tiled arrangement of stylized TikTok screens, pokes fun at the sexy-Halloween-costume phenomenon, even as it’s sympathetic to the way women long for excuses to dress like bad girls, especially when they’re locked into a pattern of being very, very good. But mostly, these young performers work way too hard for very little real payoff. Rice, while good enough at playing a naïve newbie, is less believable as a vengeful vixen. Rapp has a dazzling, naughty smile, but she doesn’t so much sing her numbers as strong-arm them into submission, as if she were wrestling an alligator. None of the performers are served by the movie’s aggressively colorful costume design: the Plastics’ clothes are flashy and cheap-looking rather than enviably trendy; they’re like discards from yesterday’s haul video.

The 2004 Mean Girls had stealth wit on its side, not to mention a number of gifted young performers (particularly Lindsay Lohan, as the just-innocent-enough Cady, and Rachel McAdams, who took her character seriously even as she filled her performance with devilish light, the perfect combination). And even though it never, ever moralized, it had a serious moral underpinning. Its central point—that everyone deserves kindness, no matter what social stratus they belong to—was never belabored; it merely shimmered. In the new Mean Girls, the understandably wronged Janis takes a more active role in getting revenge on her nemesis Regina. Yet near the movie’s end, in the fiery number “I’d Rather Be Me,” she lashes out at expectations of “how girls should behave,” asserting that “sometimes what’s meant to break you/ makes you brave.” That’s fair enough. But the number pushes against the core idea of the original Mean Girls. Instead of recognizing that mistreating others is the quickest way to demean yourself, it celebrates excuse-making: A bad-ass is the best thing a woman can be; it’s OK to treat other women badly if they’ve wronged you. If that’s feminism, then the mean girls really have won.

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