Saturday, May 15, 2004

Mean Girls

* * * (out of four)
Seen 14 May 2004 at Loews Boston Common #12 (first-run)

I must have missed high school. Either that, or (and this is my pet theory) everyone in Hollywood went to private school, and so their idea of what a public school is like comes from watching other high school movies, and now twenty years of this has resulted in an almost universally stylized depiction of high school, right down to the scene where someone shows the new kid who the various cliques in the lunchroom are, all of which can be tagged with a simple two-word description.

Or maybe I'm wrong; Mean Girls is credited as being based on a sociological study, so there may be something to it. Things like a smart girl tanking a class to get closer to a guy have the ring of truth, at least. At any rate, Tina Fey takes the anthropological approach of this book and builds a script where 16-year-old Cady (Lindsay Lohan) is coming into high school cold, without ever having been in a classroom before; her zoologist parents home-schooled her while they worked in Africa. At first, her observations (in voice-over) are an intriguing outsider's view, like how she mentions that she's never been in an envrionment where people don't trust her when she's denied permission to use the ladies' room. Soon, she meets up with Janis and Damian, an art-gal and her gay best friend, and is also asked to sit at the popular girls' table, which is ruled by Regina (Rachel McAdams). This leads to a scheme to destroy "The Plastics" from within... Unless, of course, Cady winds up becoming one of them.

There aren't really any new character types in this movie; and on occasion it becomes obvious that Fey and director Mark S. Waters are working with types. It's not really a bad thing; some of the funnier moments come as Cady slips into seeing high school in terms of jungle animals, and it's clear we're working with archtypes. And those archtypes are painted broadly enough to be funny while still maintaining some individuality. Particularly good is McAdams, who maintains her charisma despite clearly being the villain of the piece. On the other hand, there are moments and characters (such as Lacey Chabert's Gretchen) that feel like little more than Hollywood archtypes, rather than high school ones.

The filmmakers occasionally seem to come close to an R rating by their refusal to blink in the face of teens' sexuality and a few thoroughly mean-spirited bits. The use of a school bus, like the knives in Starsky & Hutch, has no business drawing a laugh, but gets a big one anyway - that's comic timing. The sex is a little more bothersome for me. On the one hand, I like that the movie doesn't preach about sex being immoral and bad (and hilariously mocks that kind of simplistic attitude); on the other, it's flipness with some of these kids' activity occasionally seemed to be a little far in the other direction. Or maybe I'm just 30 and creeped out by finding some of the girls in the cast attractive, even if I know Ms. McAdams is actually 27 and Ms. Lohan (the only actress playing her actual age) still looks like a kid.

The film is produced by Lorne Michaels and has a few current and previous Saturday Night Live contributors. Amy Poehler is usually much funnier than she is here, while Tina Fey manages both to be funny and the mature sane center of the movie as the kids' math teacher. Tim Meadows is funny for perhaps the first time ever as the principal of the school, delivering his lines with a killer deadpan style that beautifully illustrates just how powerless he feels despite allegedly being in charge of the school.

There's nothing groundbreaking about Mean Girls; it fills in a space on the high school comedy list somewhere between Ten Things I Hate About You and Heathers. It does execute very well, though, skillfully enough to be worth a watch even if you don't fit in its demographic.

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