The first Mean Girls, that compulsively watchable high-school-based social satire by Tina Fey, came out in 2004.
The Broadway musical opened in 2018. Now it’s 2024, and we have a screen adaptation of the theatre adaptation. How long will this reconfiguring go on? Is there a limit?
Or … does the limit not exist?
Forgive us for that utterly blatant setup for one of the original’s most famous lines. It’s just that some of them are so darned memorable. Like, “You can’t sit here!” — screeched. Or when Regina, the haughtiest queen bee ever to carry a cafeteria tray, scathingly tells her minion Gretchen, who’s trying out her new word “fetch,” to “Stop trying to make ‘fetch’ happen. It’s NOT going to happen!!”
But even in Mean Girls 17, should it come to that, someone will still be trying to make “fetch” happen. And it’s actually not a bad word to describe the experience of watching the new Mean Girls — a slick, fizzy bit of entertainment that’s occasionally delightful and usually fun, even if the translation to 2024 definitely has its rough spots.
If you’ve recently re-watched the first film, you may be surprised here at how many lines remain, word for word. What’s impressive is how many still work – unlike some social comedies that felt right 20 years ago but have scenes that fall with a thud now (see Love Actually).
There are exceptions, though. I’ll confess to feeling queasy throughout about the “dumb girl” character who remains in the Plastics, Regina’s social group. There is, thankfully, no more reference to a coach sleeping with a student, which would not have been funny, even with Jon Hamm as the coach. Slut-shaming has been conspicuously toned down – the insult in Regina’s famous Burn Book is now “cow” and not “slut.”
On the other hand, fat-shaming? That’s still there, as when the camera zooms in rudely on the rear end of a character who’s gained a few pounds.
As for the casting, some of it works wonderfully, particularly the duo who introduce the film, which is again written by Fey, with music by Jeff Richmond (her husband), and lyrics by Nell Benjamin. Damian, the beloved character described affectionately by Janis as “almost too gay to function” (but that’s only OK when she says it), and Janis, his best friend, a talented artist whose fallout with Regina left her in the dirt socially, function almost as quasi-narrators.
Jaquel Spivey, of Broadway’s A Strange Loop, is hilarious and also moving as Damian — you wait for each new line, and he wastes none of them. And Auli’i Cravalho as Janis has a gorgeous voice and charismatic screen presence. (And a huge song, though from the trailer, you wouldn’t know anyone has songs at all.)
Angourie Rice is the new Cady, the Lindsay Lohan role, a home-schooled math whiz who arrives in suburban Chicago straight from Kenya, where her mother was doing zoological research, into the snake pit of high school.
Rice is a sweet presence but not as convincing in the “bad Cady” moments as Lohan. As for the Plastics, singer Reneé Rapp, formerly Regina on Broadway, imbues the role with powerhouse vocals and an angrier edge than the excellent Rachel McAdams did — when she’s enraged, boy, you feel it.
Once again, Cady begins her first school day in math class with Ms. Norbury, once played by Fey — and again by Fey! Tim Meadows is also back as the principal; both look older but certainly not two decades.
Cady has a rough entry and ends up eating lunch in a bathroom stall, but is rescued by Janis and Damian. In the cafeteria, she has her first encounter with Queen Bee Regina. “My name is Regina George,” sings Rapp, in some of the show’s best lyrics, “I am a massive deal. I don’t care who you are, I don’t care how you feel.”
The Plastics — Regina, needy Gretchen (Bebe Woods) and intellectually challenged Karen (Avantika) — adopt Cady and teach her the rules: Wear pink on Wednesdays. No tank tops two days in a row. A ponytail? Once a week.
Also: You can’t date someone’s ex-boyfriend, because those are “the rules of feminism.” At such moments, one can literally hear Fey writing the line.
Things go south quickly when Cady falls for Regina’s ex, Aaron, who sits in front of her in AP Calculus (leading to the excellent lyric “Calcu-lust.”) Regina isn’t going to give up Aaron without a dirty fight. So Cady, aided by Damian and Janis, plots to bring Regina down from inside, pretending to be a loyal Plastic.
But at what point does Cady stop pretending and BECOME a Plastic? (Ask Janis.)
Directors Samantha Jayne and Arturo Perez Jr. keep the action moving briskly. A key visual difference is technology. In the 2004 film, friends spoke to each other on the telephone, in split screens. Now, of course, gossip and bullying take place via social media. In some ways this makes it all seem more vicious.
When Regina takes an embarrassing tumble onstage at the Christmas performance, we witness a social media shaming that is much crueller than anything that happened in the 2004 version.
And yet, it’s believable, of course. One comes away from this latest Mean Girls thinking that in some ways things may have gotten better for high schoolers than they were in 2004 — but in other ways, things have only gotten meaner.
Rating: Two and a half stars out of four.
Mean Girls: The Musical hits New Zealand screens on January 18.