“Mean Girls” means to be an updated version of the best teen comedies of the 1980s, like “Heathers” and “Sixteen Candles.”
While it definitely captures elements of those movies, and features a sparkling performance from rising star Lindsay Lohan, it never quite reaches the same level of instant cult classic.
There’s the darkly subversive humor and a terrifying trio of queen bees who buzz through the high school halls, like “Heathers.” There’s the acutely observant depictions of various cliques and their labels, particularly in that minefield known as the cafeteria, that made audiences relate so well to “Sixteen Candles.”
But when you look closely, there’s another pop culture phenomenon that “Mean Girls” resembles even more: “Saturday Night Live,” which makes sense, since it springs from the mind of “SNL” head writer Tina Fey.
The same things that are right and wrong with most of the late-night comedy show’s skits are right and wrong with “Mean Girls.” It comes on strong with sharp, biting wit and great energy, then runs out of steam and doesn’t know when to call it quits.
(The presence of Tim Meadows, Amy Poehler and Ana Gasteyer also feels familiar in this Lorne Michaels Production, which mercifully lacks the idiotic humor that marked some of his other movies, including “A Night at the Roxbury” and “The Ladies Man.”)
As directed by Mark Waters (who also directed Lohan in last year’s charming remake of “Freaky Friday”), the movie’s structure also feels like a series of sketches.
Lohan’s character — the new girl in school, Cady, who’d been raised in Africa by her zoologist parents — alternates between the outcasts who initially befriended her and the popular group, which she infiltrates. Each scene offers some great one-liners and a few memorable physical jokes, but there’s little narrative momentum to tie the film together and drive it along.
This is Fey’s first screenplay, though, based on Rosalind Wiseman’s best-selling nonfiction book “Queen Bees & Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends & Other Realities of Adolescence.” (It’s also Fey’s first big film role: The dryly funny “Weekend Update” anchor plays a dryly funny math teacher and the movie’s voice of reason.) And for a while, she has a good thing going.
Cady arrives at a suburban Chicago high school (which has to be a nod to those great John Hughes movies like “Sixteen Candles,” “The Breakfast Club” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” which also were set there) and becomes friends with punk rock girl Janis Ian (Lizzy Caplan) and chubby Damien (Daniel Franzese), who’s “too gay to function.”
One day during lunch, she ends up getting trapped in the web of The Plastics, as they’re known. Fabulous, blond Regina (Rachel McAdams) is their cruel leader, and her minions are the insecure, sycophantic Gretchen (Lacey Chabert) and the airheaded Karen (Amanda Seyfried).
When Cady lets it slip that she has a crush on Aaron (Jonathan Bennett), a cute guy in her calculus class who happens to be Regina’s ex-boyfriend, Regina befriends her with the intention of destroying her.
Janis and Damien have their own plans for destroying the Plastic pack, and figure Cady’s access is the best way to achieve them. Cady is caught between both worlds but — because mean girls can be so intimidating and persuasive — she ends up becoming just like them.
There are well-intentioned lessons to be learned here and in the book that serves as the movie’s inspiration. Fey makes them entirely too facile and literal, banging us over the head a couple of different times with platitudes about the need for girls to be kind to themselves and each other.
If she’d only had a lighter touch, the message would have been much more powerful.