Of all the pop culture institutions to be cancelled, ended, or otherwise shut down by the pandemic in 2020, the permanent closure of the “Mean Girls” Broadway musical was perhaps the one that disappointed me the most. I’m not sure why it wasn’t brought back post-pandemic – ticket sales had clearly been healthy enough to keep me from scoring cheap seats during its two-year run – all I knew was that the show was gone and I had missed all 833 chances to see it live. But then a ray of hope appeared when it was announced that the musical, which itself was based on the 2004 movie, which itself was based on a book, was going to become a movie. I immediately got my hopes up, this movie would be the payoff to six long years of waiting. With my expectations that high, is it any wonder I found the movie disappointing?
The story follows shy teenager Cady (Angourie Rice) as she navigates her first high school in the United States after moving from Kenya with her mother (Jenna Fischer). She’s a great academic, impressing her math teacher Ms. Norbury (Tina Fey, who played the role in the original film and is the writer of all three versions of the property), but lacking in social graces. Outcasts Janis (Auli’i Cravalho) and Damian (Jaquel Spivey) invite her to be their lunchroom companion, but she can’t help but be drawn to the ultra-popular Plastics clique, led by the domineering Regina George (Renee Rapp).
Regina and the Plastics are surprisingly receptive to Cady and invite her to join the group. She isn’t really comfortable around the chic Regina and her friends, busybody Gretchen (Bebe Wood) and vacuous Karen (Avantika), but Janis convinces her that it will be so fun to infiltrate the group and report back on how catty and ridiculous they are. This of course makes Cady and Janis just as catty and ridiculous as the Plastics, but they don’t pick up on it until it’s too late. Meanwhile, Cady develops a crush on Regina’s ex Aaron (Christopher Briney), and when she learns that Plastics rules forbid dating him, she schemes to work around the system, manipulate Aaron into liking her, and usurp Regina’s popularity. In other words, she takes to being a “mean girl” more easily than she thought possible.
The musical numbers are certainly fun, if not particularly memorable. It’s hard not to get swept up in just how endearingly dramatic these kids are, which the singing and dancing compliment perfectly. I have no problem believing that this movie will create just as many breakout stars as the 2004 film. But seeing them on a cramped set isn’t the same as seeing them on a nice open stage. There are sequences in houses and classrooms that are undeniably impressive and no doubt a lot of hard work went into them, but that’s the problem, it’s hard not to think about how much work went into them. Somehow it’s perfectly believable that these characters would break into song and dance, but I have a hard time believing that they would choose to do this much limb-flailing choreography in such a tight space.
I think the bigger problem with this version of “Mean Girls” is that it may be too soon to remake a movie from 2004, even with the change-up of musical numbers. The original is so fresh in the audience’s mind that they know the progression of the story and in some places can quote the dialogue word-for-word, which includes stepping on some integral punchlines. Tina Fey and Tim Meadows (as the school’s principal) reprise their roles without singing, and it’s less a welcome nostalgia act and more of an unflattering copy. Still, I’d like to see the movie become a hit, partly because I want to reward its infectious energy and partly because I’d like to see it lead to a revival of the Broadway show so I can finally see the musical the way it was intended.
“Mean Girls” is rated PG-13 for sexual material, strong language, and teen drinking. Its running time is 112 minutes.
Robert R. Garver is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at New York University. His weekly movie reviews have been published since 2006.