Saturday, January 23, 2016

Mean Girls (2004) ***1/2

It's a shame that historical events have turned Tina Fey's “Mean Girls” into a movie most remembered for its sad commentary on the downfall of a child star. It basically marks the last moment when Lindsay Lohan appeared, in the public eye, to still be sweet, pretty, and fresh, and an upcoming talent. Re-watching it now, I can see that she wasn't a Streep-level actress, but she was more than competent enough for a comedy like “Mean Girls,” with potential to spare. Over the last decade, of course, Lohan has devolved into a cautionary tale of drugs and skankiness, but what of “Mean Girls”? How has IT aged? Pretty well, as it turns out. This is still a mostly tightly-woven critique of teenage girl culture.

Cady (Lohan) is the new girl in school. She has trouble fitting in until she is befriended by outsiders Janis (Lizzy Caplan) and Damien (Daniel Franzese). Cady is pretty hot, though, so eventually a group of pretty girls called the Plastics take notice of her. Janis encourages Cady to hang out with the Plastics just to spy on them. Cady is initially reluctant, but she finds herself enjoying being one of the pretty people, and striving for these girls' approval.

Then Cady gets interested in Aaron (Jonathan Bennett), a popular guy, and everything goes to hell. Cady is a good student, but she starts pretending to be dumb to get Aaron's attention. This actually works, and Regina (Rachel McAdams), the leader of the Plastics, gets jealous. Girl drama ensues. Soon these girls are sniping behind each others' backs and turning other friends on each other. The fight snowballs to involve most of the school, and a sensible teacher (Tina Fey) has to stage an intervention.

The film starts to get slightly preachy in that scene, but fortunately, Tina Fey, who also adapted the screenplay, is classy and funny enough to keep it out of Movie-of-the-Week territory. Everything else in “Mean Girls” is spot-on, with a tight plot and excellent acting, especially from Lohan, Caplan, and McAdams. Even though the film pre-dates the widespread use of social media, the sniping that goes on between these girls looks very similar to the bullying you hear about on Facebook and Instagram nowadays. It goes to show that the formats and even cultures change, but basic, human nature remains the same. There are always people like Regina who simply have an instinct for manipulating others, and for selecting whom to include and whom to exclude from the group. Weaker people follow these bullies, largely out of fear of being selected for bullying themselves.

“Mean Girls” is a funny movie, but it was striving to be a little more, to bring some awareness to the messed-up dynamic of bullying and insincerity that teenage girls have to deal with, even as they perpetuate it. Did the movie make a difference? I don't know. Maybe it at least became a part of the lexicon, a touchstone for explaining to girls how not to be. In the meantime, it made us laugh with lines like “He's too gay to function” and “Stop trying to make 'Fetch' happen. It's not going to happen.”

3.5 stars out of 5

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