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‘Mean Girls’ review: New film of the musical is more like a pretty-good time karaoke track

Michael Phillips
Chicago Tribune
(TNS)

“Mean Girls,” the musical, the movie, works fairly well. I know, I know. Curb your enthusiasm there, bub. But that’s how it is. Like “The Color Purple,” another movie musical now in theaters, the movie’s performers elevate largely forgettable songs working hard to convince the source material it’d make a terrific song-and-dance vehicle. In the case of “Mean Girls,” die-hard admirers of the clique-bait source material, a generation old now, will get their fairly good time.

Tina Fey’s 2004 screenplay started from a 2002 nonfiction book, “Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boys, and the New Realities of Girl World.” The first film version offered a quippy, cleverly two-faced demonization/embrace of toxic female teardown behavior.

The story, you may know already. It concerns how home-schooled Cady Heron, the new kid at a Chicago-area high school, became a pet makeover project of “the Plastics.” This trio of “apex predators” are led by fearsome, manipulating, deeply insecure Regina George, the gold standard of bullying condescension at North Shore High.

“Mean Girls” became a 2018 Broadway musical, nominated for 12 Tonys, winning none but people went anyway because there’s only so many times families with kids can see “Wicked.” “Mean Girls” the musical spawned lots of touring editions and may well end up being revived on high school stages long after “Anything Goes” or “The Music Man” have been deemed hopelessly unrevivable. And now, “Mean Girls” the musical is “Mean Girls” the movie musical, originally meant for Paramount+ streaming but rerouted, probably wisely, to theaters first.

So much has changed in two decades. While the basic sociological dynamics of “Mean Girls” remain in place (Fey adapted her Broadway libretto for the movie), the escalating war of humiliation waged between Cady and Regina, along with collateral damage and various power ballads, is captured by the characters’ cellphone cameras, TikTok videos and the cold glare of social media. It couldn’t be otherwise in 2024, really, without lying.

But the mean-girl fun of “Mean Girls” feels different today — curdled, somehow. Too many of us know stories, secondhand or otherwise, of high school bullying taken too lightly with awful, tragic results. The new movie can’t forsake its entire comic personality to accommodate that much of the real new world. That said: Regina’s destroy-all-enemies anthem “World Burn,” sung in the movie by Reneé Rapp, feels like a dramatic misjudgment. It’s a key number, but like much of the work here by first-time feature directors Samantha Jayne and Arturo Perez Jr., the visual fabulizing (full of crimson, apocalyptic rage and high notes) has a way of falsifying rather than intensifying the emotion.

In the new movie, Angourie Rice (”Mare of Easttown”) plays Cady; the auxiliary Plastics are portrayed by Avantika Vandanapu and Bebe Wood. These characters have traveled from wittily subtle caricatures in the 2004 version to a much broader realm of exaggeration. And while Rapp’s Regina conveys a fuller, more troubled range of nastiness and sadness than Rachel McAdams was asked to deliver in 2004, “Mean Girls,” I think, as a stage property and a film version thereof, makes the common musical-theater mistake of overexploiting its antagonist.

The musical’s viewpoint and sympathies remain squarely with two characters, the ones who first befriend Cady: Janis, played by Auliʻi Cravalho, and Damian, played by Jaquel Spivey. Queer and fabulous in neatly contrasting ways, they are the ones bringing us into their world, first singing to us (”A Cautionary Tale,” a solid opener to composer Jeff Richmond and lyricist Nell Benjamin’s unevenly effective score) from behind a cellphone camera. It is Janis who has benefited most from this material’s 20-year adaptation span.

Screenwriter Fey, who also returns onscreen as the math teacher, more fully amplified Janis’s story for the Broadway musical. Onscreen, her big Act 2 song “I’d Rather Be Me” becomes the movie’s most satisfying number, and the one that flows, moves, cuts and delivers above the rest.

There are, to be sure, a lot of solid laughs in “Mean Girls,” still. I do wish more of the teen characters in this incarnation worked, on the page and in the performances, with the subtle comic authority of what folks like Fey, or Jenna Fischer (as Cady’s mom; no dad in this version), do so effortlessly. There will always be an audience for high school trauma comedies, with or without power ballads; the 2004 “Mean Girls” picked up the baton passed by John Hughes, “Sixteen Candles” and “The Breakfast Club” for a new generation. The musical “Mean Girls” takes material that doesn’t naturally sing, adds some new songs while cutting others. Some of it’s new, in other words, with all the ego-destroying tricks the characters play on one another now all over TikTok, stoking the hurt and the venom.

Yet the core of Fey’s storyline hasn’t changed, even if technology has. It embraces, with trace elements of sincerity, the juicy comic extremes of mean-girldom, complete with an 11th-hour repudiation and a reminder to be nicer. Before it’s too late.

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‘MEAN GIRLS’

2.5 stars (out of 4) 

MPA rating: PG-13 (for sexual material, strong language and teen drinking)

Running time: 1:52

How to watch: In theaters Friday

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©2024 Chicago Tribune. Visit chicagotribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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