Mean Girls
directed by Mark S. Waters
(Paramount, 2004)

Cady Heron is a former homeschooler who gets dumped into North Shore High at age 16 when her mother, a roving zoologist, lands a tenured faculty position at Northwestern University. Regina George is the self-annointed queen of the Plastics, the ruling clique at North Shore High. And Janis Ian is a bewigged art freak who lives for the day when the Plastics in general and Regina in particular melt down.

Together they turn North Shore -- and its principal, Mr. Duvall (Tim Meadows), and math teacher/Mathletes coach Ms. Norbury (Tina Fey) -- upside down with more plots and counterplots than the CIA and KGB were able to deploy and counterdeploy in 45 years of Cold War.

But that's to be expected, because this is high school, where the wars are all hot, all the time, and Cady, Regina and Janis are Mean Girls.

The fun begins when Cady (Linsday Lohan) is faced with the impossible task of finding a seat in the North Shore cafeteria, which has somehow subdivided itself into very official, very territorial cliques. There seem to be seats at the art freaks' table -- where Janis (Lizzy Caplan), the class lesbian, lunches daily with Damian (Daniel Franzese), the class gay guy -- and at the Plastics' table, where Regina (Rachel McAdams) holds court with her two toadies, Gretchen (Lacey Chabert) and Karen (Amanda Seyfried).

So who does Cady -- pronounced "Kay-dee" by Cady but "Catty" by everyone else -- hook up with? Both, of course. By day she hangs out with the Plastics to pry out of them whatever goods she can get on Regina; by night she buddies up with Janis and Damian and devises scams designed to complicate Regina's life.

But the complications become too complicated even for 16-year-olds when Cady develops her first teen crush on Regina's ex, Aaron (Jonathan Bennett), whose only fault is that he doesn't look exactly like an underage Tom Cruise. And so the Mean Girls get even meaner, until all North Shore's junior girls -- and Damian -- are literally at each other's throats and Norbury is hauled off by the local constabulary under suspicion of selling drugs.

Taken at face value, Mean Girls is a lot of fun. Sure, it's stocked with stereotypes, most notably the aggressively superficial Regina, whom Cady describes as "the Barbie Doll I never had." Even the so-called adults -- Duvall, Norbury and Regina's and Cady's parents (Amy Poehler, Dan Willmott, Ana Gasteyer and Neil Flynn) -- rarely stretch their roles to two dimensions, much less three.

But the students are all exceedingly well cast and have been handed dialogue that can only be described as "to die for." For instance, there's Janis (after Norbury runs into her at the mall): "I just love seeing teachers out of school; it's like seeing a dog walk on its hind legs." Or how about this exchange between Cady and Toady No. 2?

Cady: Well, there must be something you're good at.
Karen: Well, there is this one thing, it's like I have a fifth sense. It's like I have ESPN or something? My breasts can always tell when it's raining.

Just whose lines are best is hard to say, but they're all delivered with a staccato rhythm that reinforces the notion that North Shore is a cliche hell in which prolonged thinking is not only not going to get you anywhere -- it's strictly prohibited.

No, the fault in Mean Girls lies not in its stars, but in the script. Tina Fey's screenplay, based on Rosalind Wiseman's book Queen Bee & the Wannabes, gets off to a contrived start, with Cady cramming years of background information into an overstuffed narration she reels off as she enters North Shore for the first time.

Things soon settle down and get into a good pace as the dialogue takes over and keeps you laughing too hard too often to keep in mind that the story you're watching is a rather stale artifice that's been freshened with some deft touches, like Cady's comparison of teens hanging out at the mall fountain to African beasts mating at a water hole -- or the choice for her parents' car, a Hybrid.

But in the end -- and the ending is where director Mark Waters' film is most disappointing -- Mean Girls becomes first predictable, then maudlin, with barely enough teen cynicism left simmering beneath the surface to make it watchable.

Yes, Mean Girls is a well-cast, well-acted film with lots of leave-no-prisoners dialogue and plenty of scenes that make you glad you're not back in high school. And if it's hard to say you really care for any of these characters, it certainly is fun to watch them work.

Ultimately, however, Mean Girls though it means well, stumbles because it lacks an exit strategy. Clever it is; Welcome to the Dollhouse it's not.

- Rambles
written by Miles O'Dometer
published 4 December 2004

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