Review: Twenty Years Later, Mean Girls Adds Music but Remains as Quotable as Ever
Rosalind Wiseman's Queen Bees and Wannabes was published in 2002, a non-fiction guide for parents on the cliques and exclusionary behavior teen girls engage in during their formative high school years. In a way only she could, Tina Fey adapted that book into 2004's Mean Girls, a film that quickly came to define the aughts and launched both careers and more than a few catchphrases into the cultural zeitgeist. The film's popularity has never wavered, and in 2017, a musical stage adaptation premiered on Broadway to general acclaim. This weekend, the book-to-movie-to-musical-to-movie-musical pipeline reaches its natural destination as, twenty years after the first film, a new version about the Plastics and the havoc they wreak on North Shore High School's female population opens in theaters nationwide.
This version, co-directed by Samantha Jayne and Arturo Perez Jr., runs twenty minutes longer than the 2024 film, as it has just over a half-dozen songs to fit in between the snark. Other than that and ostensibly updating the setting to present day, where social media runs rampant, not much of this Mean Girls is different from its predecessor, right down to the quotable dialogue. The film isn't bad, per se; Jayne and Perez Jr. capably direct both the straight scenes and the musical numbers, and the cast is, in a word, remarkable (more on them momentarily). But after the initial thrill of returning to this delightfully sharp and silly world wears off about twenty minutes into the film, I for one couldn't help but wonder why I was sitting watching this version instead of just enjoying the original (now a new classic) at home.
This time around, Cady Heron, the heretofore home schooled high school junior who's newly returned from Kenya and needs to quickly learn the ways of the lunchroom jungle, is played by the sparkling talent that is Angourie Rice, an Australian actress with a Julia Roberts smile and charm to spare. On the first day of school, she meets two "art freaks" who serve as a guide to both her and us, their musical numbers often moving the plot forward in ways the film's actual narrative fails to do. Auli'i Cravalho, best known as the voice of Disney's Moana, is Janice, the goth (sort of?) artist with a grudge against Queen of the Plastics, Regina George, while Jaquel Spivey is Damian, who's "almost too gay to function."
George is played to the Ice Queen max by Broadway and pop star Renée Rapp, who's bleach blonde hair and ample cleavage (SO much cleavage in this version) all apparently signal her undeniable popularity. She's joined by Bebe Wood as the doting BFF Gretchen Wieners and Avantika as the very dumb and very pretty Karen Shetty. Cady's (and Regina's) love interest Aaron Samuels is here played by a very dreamy Christopher Briney. Tim Meadows returns as Mr. Duvvall, and Tina Fey reprises her role as Mrs. Norbury; other notable updates to the cast include Jenna Fischer (Cady's mom), Busy Philipps (Regina's mom), Jon Hamm (Coach Carr) and a late-in-the-film cameo that you could spoil with a look elsewhere online, but won't find ruined here.
The core cast, including Rice, Rapp, Cravalho and Spivey, are all exceptional young talents, and I would find it hard to believe if we aren't talking more about one or all of them in the coming year or two. The performances are very much not the problem with this modern Mean Girls, and even the songs from Broadway show (written by Fey's spouse, Jeff Richmond) is catchy enough and smartly translated to the screen (an opening garage band number to set the scene, a "revenge party" montage in a high school hallway decked out for the celebration). Choreography, cinematography, costumes—all the elements for a bouncy new take on the familiar narrative are here. And so is every line you've quoted from the original for twenty years is, too.
In the end, Mean Girls 2024 may prove a shrewd business move for Fey and its other creators, and it hopefully launches several of its young stars into well-deserved careers. But as for moviegoers, it amounts to not much more than a decision to part with your hard-earned $20 for a ticket to a movie you know well with some new musical numbers, or, especially on this winter-storm weekend in Chicago, to stay home and enjoy Fey's original masterwork from the comfort of home.
Mean Girls is now in theaters.
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