If you ever wondered what Mean Girls would’ve been like if it had been drained of most of its edge and several of its singularly impacting scenes were interrupted by short and mostly underwhelming musical numbers, Paramount has gifted you your wish early enough in the year that you’ll be able to forget it by the time the snow melts.
That might be a little harsh, but watching a contemporary teen classic remixed into a shell of its former self is also a bittering experience. The original Mean Girls had the right amounts of sass and tenacity. Mixed into the endlessly quotable dialog and insults were some real revelations about adolescent behavior. It had the spirit of a John Hughes movie with the satirical bite of a Saturday Night Live skit (aided in part by its cast of recognizable alums).
Samantha Jayne and Arturo Perez Jr’s Mean Girls — not a direct remake, but instead an adaptation of the Broadway musical by Jeff Richmond, Nell Benjamin, and Tina Fey — lacks those dynamic ingredients. It’s a fiercely modern retooling that commits to about 80% of the original film’s dialog, while overplaying every pivotal sequence with a musical number.
The story remains largely the same: Cady Heron (Angourie Rice) makes the leap from being a lifelong homeschooled student to one of the hundreds of faces at a suburban Illinois high school. Her life in Africa is quite different from the one she’ll be faced with when she enters the halls of North Shore High School. Janis (Auli’l Cravalho) and Damian (Jaquel Spivey) come to her rescue to give her the lay of the land, outlining the school hierarchy of outcasts, math nerds, band kids, jocks, cheerleaders, and of course, the trio of queen bees known as the “Plastics,” led by Regina George (Broadway actress/singer Reneé Rapp).
Regina’s entrance has Rapp setting the stage for a movie that makes no qualms about being an over-the-top musical: “My name is Regina George, and I am a massive deal!” she belts in a surprisingly low vocal tone that recalls Billie Eilish. Regina is armed with her two cohorts, the sweetly innocent Gretchen Wieners (Bebe Wood) and the airheaded Karen Shetty (Avantika)…
Do I need to go further? You know the story. Cady gets wrapped in Regina’s web of popularity and gossip so much so that she loses her identity and sight of her real friends. While for some, Cady Heron will never not be Lindsay Lohan, Angourie Rice does well in realistically capturing the timidity of a young woman who is thrust into this high school hell. While Reneé Rapp’s singing voice rivals any of her contemporaries, her performance as Regina is less a credible caricature of a teenager diva and more a cartoonishly drawn villain. She doesn’t have Rachel McAdams’ hold on the character.
And that’s the underlying problem with this new Mean Girls. Tina Fey’s script has the original film’s dialog do so much heavy-lifting with a cast so clearly aware of its predecessor that they can’t possibly make the same quips their own. Hearing lines like “and none for Gretchen Wieners, bye” and “stop trying to make ‘fetch’ happen” don’t hit the same when they’re delivered as mic drops. In Mark Waters’ film, they were one-off lines delivered by actors who had no idea the touchstones they’d become.
I haven’t commented much about the music in the film because most of the songs are forgettable, despite being performed well and aided by eye-catching sets as well as kinetic choreography. Avantika’s “Sexy” number will likely have some staying power on social media. It does boast one uproariously funny line — “This is modern feminism talkin’/Watch me as I run the world/In shoes I cannot walk in” — but it doesn’t have much staying power outside of being a momentarily amusing bop.
Other songs completely interrupt whatever momentum the film is building. Take for example the Mathletes State Final. When Cady is tapped for the sudden death round, she bursts into song as soon as it’s her turn to answer. Nevermind the fact that Tina Fey gave herself Cady’s revelatory monologue (“calling someone fat won’t make you skinny…”) during the gymnasium sequence several scenes prior, and the scene is not only robbed of its suspense, but Cady is robbed of the realization that gives this entire movie purpose in the first place.
Finally, those who have seen the film a couple dozen times more than myself will undoubtedly notice the eye-roll inducing PC-dialog. Such a gem is the latter half of Regina’s line, “you can’t join Mathletes, that’s social suicide” being changed to “that’s socially ruinous.” Regina knowing the word “ruinous” is more incredulous than an entire school breaking out into song about a revenge party. However, the change is more telling that the target audience of this movie can’t differentiate portrayal and endorsement.
That’s what you get with Mean Girls when you bring it back for the sole purpose of bringing it back. The film was actually supposed to be released onto Paramount+, but was likely made a theatrical endeavor because the studio thought being pink and plastic meant they could grab some dollars from people still on a Barbie high. It would’ve been better suited alongside Good Burger 2 and Zoey 102.
NOTE: Mean Girls is now playing exclusively in theaters.
Starring: Angourie Rice, Reneé Rapp, Auli’i Cravalho, Jaquel Spivey, Avantika, Bebe Wood, Christopher Briney, Tina Fey, Tim Meadows, and Jenna Fischer. Directed by: Samantha Jayne and Arturo Perez Jr.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!