Comedy That Cliques

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 30, 2004

"Mean Girls" boasts a one-two-three punch in star Lindsay Lohan, screenwriter Tina Fey and director Mark Waters, and, indeed, it delivers a knockout.

Smart, funny, well-acted and visually lively, this movie by rights should become a certified teen-comedy hit well before the usual season for that genre begins. And if reactions at a recent preview showing are any indication, "Mean Girls" will appeal not only to those adolescents with whom its cliques, catfights and other mortifications of high school will painfully -- and amusingly -- resonate. Their parents may want to catch this pitch-perfect satire, too -- provided, of course, that they see it at another time, in another theater and preferably in another Zip code than their offspring.

Lohan plays Cady Heron, who has lived most of her life in Africa but whose parents have moved back to the States for her junior year in high school. As Cady is initiated into the tribal customs of adolescence, replete with its kill-or-be-killed fights for alpha status, she can't help being reminded of life in the state of nature. The difference, she quickly learns, is that even the biggest, strongest and meanest wildebeest has nothing on a spoiled 16-year-old popularity queen with blond hair and perfect skin.

That latter form of wildlife is represented in "Mean Girls" by Regina George (Rachel McAdams), who runs her clique, known to its victims as the Plastics, with the imperiousness her name implies. Ruling her high school on the North Side of Chicago with a combination of ersatz kindness and breathtaking cruelty, Regina inspires awe and rank fear in her fellow students, who testify to her powers in a funny montage. ("She punched me in the face once," says one chubby girl. "It was awesome.")

Nonplussed by the signs and signifiers of what she comes to call Girl World, Cady gives the Plastics wide berth, gravitating instead to the class bohemians and math nerds. But Cady can't avoid Regina's all-encompassing grasp forever, and soon the two are the best of frenemies, enmeshed in an ever-widening web of mutual manipulation and deceit. Things are complicated by the fact that Cady has a crush on Regina's ex-boyfriend. And, as one of the Plastics solemnly informs her, "ex-boyfriends are off-limits to friends -- that's just a rule of feminism!"

Adapted by Fey from the self-help bestseller "Queen Bees and Wannabes," "Mean Girls" has its Jungle Red-painted finger firmly on the pulse of contemporary high school life, in which humiliation and terror seem to have increased as exponentially as skin-coverage has decreased. The putdowns have become more stinging, the rumors more lethal, the sexual stakes vertiginously high; to compare an affluent American high school to the African veld does a disservice to the civility of the common hyena. With her natural beauty and direct, unaffected demeanor, Cady at first seems to be no match for the knowing, alarmingly precocious Regina, but what's scary is how quickly she adapts to her new habitat.

"Mean Girls" zips along, propelled by Fey's steady stream of funny one-liners and Waters's spirited visual style. (Many viewers will remember that he directed Lohan in last year's terrific remake of "Freaky Friday.") For example, occasionally during Cady's voiceovers pondering the similarities of high school to the jungle, the actors will suddenly start acting like wild animals, a gambit that particularly pays off when a fountain in a shopping mall turns into an African watering hole.

Lohan makes an enormously appealing young heroine, who even when she seems in danger of going completely native manages to retain the audience's sympathy. The supporting cast is equally on its game here, especially Lizzy Caplan and Daniel Franzese as Cady's boho friends, and Tim Meadows and Fey as, respectively, the school principal and a teacher who becomes a Plastics victim. Fey brings her signature brand of wry humor to the role, but her script betrays a heartening humanist streak underneath the supposed cynicism. For all its raunchy humor and the occasional gross gag, "Mean Girls" tells some brave truths, not just about high school but also about life. Like all good satires, there's a message worth heeding even when its wit goes for the jugular. Just don't tell the kids. That would spoil everything.

Mean Girls (93 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for sexual content, language and some teenage drinking.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company