The “Mean Girls” musical and movie work quite well. I know I know. Curb your excitement there, buddy. But that’s the way it is. like “Purple color,” Another movie musical currently in theaters features largely forgettable songs, with the film’s performers working hard to convince the source material that this would be a great song-and-dance vehicle. In the case of “Mean Girls,” die-hard fans of the click-bait source material, now a generation old, are in for quite a good time.
Tina Fey’s 2004 screenplay began with the 2002 nonfiction book “Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive the Cliques, Gossips, Boys, and the New Realities of the Girl World.” The first film version offered a witty, brilliantly hypocritical demonization/embrace of toxic female predatory behavior.
You may already know the story. It’s about how “Plastics” became the pet makeover project of homeschooled Cady Heron, the new kid at a Chicago-area high school (think New Trier crossed with Evanston Township, but more New Trier). This trio of “apex predators” is led by the terrifying, manipulative, deeply insecure Regina George, who is the gold standard for bullying disdain at North Shore High.
“Mean Girls” was the 2018 Broadway musical, nominated for 12 Tonys, winning none, but people went anyway because there are so many places families with kids can see “Wicked.” The musical “Mean Girls” has spawned many touring editions and could be revived on high school stages long after “Anything Goes” or “The Music Man” are deemed hopelessly irreversible. And now, the “Mean Girls” musical, the movie musical “Mean Girls,” was originally intended for Paramount Plus streaming but was probably wisely directed to theaters first.
So much has changed in twenty years. While the basic sociological dynamics of “Mean Girls” remain in place (Fey adapted the Broadway libretto for the film), the escalating battle of humiliation between Cady and Regina, collateral damage and assorted power ballads are mirrored by the characters. cell phone cameras, TikTok videos and the cold glare of social media. It couldn’t be any other way in 2024 without really lying.
But the bad girl fun of “Mean Girls” feels different today; It was cut in some way. Many of us know, second-hand or otherwise, stories of high school bullying that was grossly underestimated and led to terrible, tragic consequences. The new movie can’t completely abandon its comedic personality to accommodate much of the real new world. That said: “World Burn,” Regina’s all-enemies-destroying anthem performed by Reneé Rapp, feels like a dramatic misjudgment. That’s a significant number, but as with much of first-time feature directors Samantha Jayne and Arturo Perez Jr.’s work here, the visual fable-making (full of scarlet, apocalyptic rage and high notes) has a way of distorting emotion rather than intensifying it. .
In the new movie, Angourie Rice (“Mare of Easttown”) plays Cady; The supporting Plastics are played by Avantika Vandanapu and Bebe Wood. These characters have moved on from the subtle caricatures of the 2004 version into a much broader realm of exaggeration. And while Rapp’s Regina conveys a fuller, more troubling range of unpleasantness and sadness than Rachel McAdams was asked to deliver in 2004, I think “Mean Girls” makes the common musical theater mistake of being a stage product and a film version of it . over-exploiting one’s enemy.
The musical’s perspective and sympathies depend entirely on the two characters who first befriend Cady: Janis, played by Auliʻi Cravalho, and Damian, played by Jaquel Spivey. In strangely and wonderfully opposite directions, they’re the ones who bring us into their world, singing to us for the first time from behind a cellphone camera (“A Cautionary Tale,” a solid opener for the equally effective score from composer Jeff Richmond and lyricist Nell Benjamin ). Janis was the one who benefited the most from the 20-year adaptation process of this material.
Screenwriter Fey, who also returns to the screen as a math teacher, further strengthened Janis’ story for the Broadway musical. On screen, his big number in Act 2, “I’d Rather Be Me,” becomes the film’s most satisfying number, the one that flows, moves, cuts, and stands above the rest.
Of course, there are still plenty of solid laughs in “Mean Girls.” I wish that many of the younger characters in this incarnation would work on the page and in the performances with the subtle comic authority that people like Fey or Jenna Fischer (Cady’s mother; no father in this version) do so effortlessly. . Power ballads or not, high school trauma comedies will always have an audience; 2004’s “Mean Girls” took over the baton for a new generation from John Hughes, “Sixteen Candles” and “The Breakfast Club.” The “Mean Girls” musical takes material that doesn’t naturally feature singing, adding some new songs while cutting others. In other words, some of this is new, meaning there are ego-destroying tricks that characters are now playing on each other all over TikTok, fueling pain and toxicity.
Even as technology has changed, the essence of Fey’s story has not. It embraces the juicy comic extremes of bad girlhood with traces of sincerity, complete with an 11th-hour rejection and a reminder to be kinder. 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: Premieres in theaters January 11
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.