Thursday, July 12, 2012

Say What You Will About It, Mean Girls Is Close-Enough To Perfect To Rave About!

The Good: Funny, Good character development, Decent directoral style, Generally good acting, Social commentary
The Bad: Minutia
The Basics: Funny and near-perfect, Mean Girls lives up to its hype as a wonderful comedy about high school cliques and those who challenge them.

For those who do not read my many movie reviews, it takes a lot for me to rate a film a ten out of ten, but there are occasional films that might not be absolutely perfect that get very close to that rating. Mean Girls is one of those films.

Truth be told, I had been hearing positive hype about Mean Girls for years. Had I known it was directed by Mark Waters, who bored me with one of the worst films in recent years, Ghost Of Girlfriends Past (reviewed here!) and left me underwhelmed with Just Like Heaven, I probably would not have been as excited about taking in the movie, regardless of the hype. Fortunately, while going through my wife's DVD collection to find a movie we could watch for the night, I was psyched to find she had Mean Girls! And watching it, Waters redeemed himself for his other movies. Mean Girls lives up to its hype as a wonderful comedy with actual social commentary, making its points well with humor and style.

Cady Heron was homeschooled by her parents, as she was raised in the wilds of Africa and at age sixteen is sent off to public high school in the midwest. There, Cady is befriended by the outcast Janis Ian and her gay friend, Damian. Janis tries to help Cady navigate the cliques, but despite her best efforts, Cady is noticed by the Plastics. The Plastics are the junior girls who represent the most popular, elite and mean clique at the school. When Regina George allows Cady into the Plastics, Janis encourages her so that Janis can get the dirt on the Plastics and break up the powerful Junior trio.

This plan appeals to Cady when she finds herself instantly attracted to Aaron, who is Regina's ex-boyfriend. Dating ex's of the clique members is strictly prohibited, a fact which leaves Cady disappointed and willing to scheme against Regina. To stop Cady, Regina begins making moves on Aaron - while cheating on him - and Cady tries to win over Aaron, destroy Regina and avoid being a mathlete. Regina, however, soon learns of Cady's duplicity when Aaron breaks up with her and seeks to ruin Cady.

What Mean Girls does so well is capture the look, feel and tensions of high school, while making commentaries that are more adult than childish. Peripheral characters, like Regina's mother who tries desperately to be a part of her daughter's clique, garner a great number of laughs which makes for a much richer movie; not all of the pressure is on Cady to get the laughs. In fact, Cady plays the straightman to virtually every other character and as a result, it is easy to empathize with her. She, like the older viewers, is detached from the society of the high school. As a result, she is the ideal vehicle for the fish-out-of-water type comedy that makes up Mean Girls.

This is done quite creatively when Waters and writers Rosalind Wiseman and Tina Fey illustrate Cady's viewpoint; she juxtaposes animal behavior she witnessed in Africa with behavior she sees in the high school. These occasional flights of fancy throughout the movie might cause viewers to recall Ally McBeal and the analogy is not a bad one, as there is at least one moment where Cady imagines something that is taken back seconds after it happens that is not the result of any sense of social commentary. Still, watching the performers in the film suddenly begin prowling around like wild animals and leap upon one another shakes up the movie when it finds itself in danger of slowing down.

In addition, the writers shake up the traditional high school teen movie by defying some of the paradigms, most notably in how Cady eliminates the competition with Regina as leader of the Plastics. Cady seeks to simple take Regina down a peg without realizing what effect that is most likely to have and there is a wonderful moment where Cady ends up as the new alpha and because the character has become so corrupted by her plan at that point, this does not phase her (her friend, Janis, makes this explicit and it works wonderfully in the film).

What works as well is the way Janis Ian and Cady play off one another; Janis is motivated by her own desire for revenge for a past incident and she uses Cady much the way Regina uses Aaron. Ironically, both Janis and Regina react similarly when their pawns (Cady and Aaron, respectively) rebel. As well, while young people might instantly see the Plastics as antagonists (or desirable, for those so programmed), older viewers are likely to see the high school layout and see that this is just one clique among many and not be as judgmental in the way the writers and directors hope we will be.

But what fans are equally likely to enjoy is the fact that the movie is genuinely funny. The dialogue is wonderful and both captures the young dialect and comments on it. Near the very beginning there is a great moment when Cady and Regina are talking and Regina uses "shut up!" as a reactive colloquialism and Cady stares at her blank-faced and says, "I didn't say anything." It's funny and well-timed.

Mean Girls is arguably known best as a Lindsay Lohan vehicle and this film does give the bright-eyed young woman her chance to shine. She rises to the occasion and delivers a performance that is surprisingly mature and also able to keep a fresh sense of comic timing to it. She is able to deliver an appropriately quizzical look that sells her character perfectly and her pauses and deadpan deliveries keep the movie funny.

Lohan is not the only talent in the movie, though. Amanda Seyfried has one of the best deliveries as the dimwitted Plastic, Karen. She plays the fool perfectly and she plays off Lacey Chabert's Gretchen wonderfully. Lizzie Caplan plays her usual outsider character as Janis Ian, but she is unrelenting in Mean Girls, giving her performance a darker edge than many of her other roles. And Rachel McAdam's performance as Regina is so good that it made it clear how she was cast for The Time Traveler's Wife (reviewed here!)!

The adult cast is led by Saturday Night Live alums Tina Fey, Tim Meadows, and Amy Poehler, which makes sense as this is a Lorne Michael production. Poehler gets to do her usual over-the-top schtick as Regina's mother and her sense of physical comedy is wonderful. By contrast, Meadows carries a great deal of his humor with deadpan, more subtle deliveries. Fey mixes a more serious role as Cady's teacher, Ms. Norbury, with a few out-of-school scenes where she is able to play the social-awkward card.

The mix is wonderful and the result is a strong comedy that has great repeatability for teens and adults alike. When it is not making social comedy, it is funny and when the humor fades, it actually makes one care about the characters on screen. What more could one ask for?

For other works with Lizzy Caplan, be sure to visit my reviews of:
New Girl - Season 1
Hot Tub Time Machine
True Blood - Season 1
Orange County
Freaks And Geeks


Check out other film reviews by me at my Movie Review Index Page!

© 2012, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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