A lively but lacking adaptation of the musical version of Tina Fey’s revered and referential comedy from 2004
Aside from TV shows and a smattering of SNL skits, it’s surprising to think that Tina Fey hasn’t penned a feature film since 2004’s Mean Girls. A sharp, incisive high-school comedy, that took tackled themes of insecurity, bullying, sexuality, misogyny, and sisterhood. Entrenched in pop culture, its sustained success led to a move to the stage in 2017, with Mean Girls the Musical. Things now come full circle as this all singing and dancing verison of the film has found its way onto the big screen in a new adaptation. A modern day take on Fey’s film that comes with as many missteps as it does medleys.
The plot is all too familiar, as Cady Heron (Angourie Rice, The Nice Guys) leaves behind homeschooling in Kenya for the wilds of high school in California. Taken under the wing of the (now) out and proud pairing of Janis (a stellar Auliʻi Cravalho, Moana) and Damian (the joyful Jaquel Spivey) she starts to understand the ins and outs of this community and the various castes within, just in time for Queen Bee Regina George (Reneé Rapp) to swoop in and fold Cady into her group. Alongside Gretchen Weiners (Bebe Wood) and Karen Shetty (Avantika Vandanapu), these “plastics” dominate the social scene, and are as worshipped as they are feared. When Cady falls for her calculus classmate (and Regina’s ex) Aaron (Christopher Briney) and becomes more aware of the toxic nature of the trio, she joins Janis and Damian in an effort to knock Regina off her pedestal. But, as Cady becomes more immersed in the scheme, and starts to lose herself to the plastics and their way of thinking.
So far so familiar. The most notable changes come in terms of the cast and the musical interludes, composed by Jeff Richmond. with lyrics by Nell Benjamin. Mostly catchy and amusing tunes that help propel things along. Cravalho and Rapp belt out some of the more impactful numbers with gusto, while other songs feel a little weak and generic, with the clarity of lyrics often lost. Co-directors Samantha Jayne and Arturo Perez Jr. have a background in music videos, and at times the energy and composition from that comes through. But the integration of these musical numbers isn’t always so smooth, and their purpose seem largely to serve as exposition or highlighting emotional responses. Something the original was far more effective at doing with far less effort.
Rice is certainly an empathetic presence at the film’s center, and forms a delightful trio with the barnstorming Auliʻi Cravalho and joyful Jaquel Spivey. The latter pair are a highlight of the film, often breaking the fourth wall to serve as narrators. Beyond this, chemistry is notably absent, especially in between love interests Cady and Aaron (Briney feeling out of place and given little material to endear himself). Each of the plastics try their best to put a slightly different spin on the characters they inhabit, but it’s only Rapp that really stands out, largely due to her singing chops and a portrayal of Regina in the last act that tilts toward a more goofy tone. The supporting cast includes a wealth of talent, including the returning Fey, Ashley Park, Jon Hamm, and Tim Meadows, but all of them feel grossly underutilized.
Some of the promotional materials come with the tagline “This isn’t your mother’s Mean Girls.” But, it fundamentally is. Despite nearly 20 years, and the addition of a series of musical numbers, the plot points, character cores, and themes tackled are the same. Aside from some updated pop culture references and some self-referential jokes, much of the dialogue is lifted verbatim. There is obviously some leeway here to forgive the film retreading such familiar ground. It’s not billed as a remake, it’s an adaptation of a musical reworking of the original. So it doesn’t represent a deliberate reworking. Even so, it all feels like a missed opportunity to update the story and reflect on the progress, or lack thereof, since the early 2000s. The players assembled certainly look and feel more naturally representative of what you’d see in a current day classroom. Social media is carefully infused, which makes for a less intrusive aspect of the film, but feels like is understates its prominence within teenagers lives. What’s most apparent is how the meanness and manipulation of the film is somewhat neutered. “Regina George is a fugly cow” instead of “fugly slut” for instance. Other secrets shared or pulled from the Burn Book feel more played for laughs, than draw on genuine insecurities. The word “fat” doesn’t even play in to the plot to ply George’s diet with protein bars. Maybe that lack of bullying and snark is showcasing a reflection of some social progress, which we can hope for. But, in terms of entertainment value, it means Mean Girls ’24 loses an edge and makes less of an impact.
If this is your first outing with Mean Girls, you’ll likely enjoy what you see. A lively venture that showcases a relatable plot and characters, and delivers some standout musical pieces. But, Mean Girls ’24 is essentially a remix of the original. The notes are the same, it’s just how loud they’re being played that differs. It also lacks the sharp, incisive wit of the first, as well as that little sprinkling of stardust amongst the cast that has made it stand the test of time. It’s a shame that the minds behind this version didn’t take the opportunity to truly reimagine the story for the modern age and possibly craft another comedy landmark.