My doubts set in once the cheese fries showed up.
There they sit on a cafeteria table, crinkled in their congealed yellow sludge, waiting to be devoured by the notorious high-school queen bee Regina George (played here by Reneé Rapp). You’ll probably catch the reference: “Whatever, I’m getting cheese fries” may not be as classic a line as “Stop trying to make ‘fetch’ happen” or “It’s like I have ESPN or something,” but then, even the less memorable dialogue from 2004’s original “Mean Girls” tends to stay with you. That speaks to the enduring pop-cultural stamp of the Tina Fey-scripted, Mark Waters-directed comedy hit, long immortalized by its endless quotability, its brilliant performances (from Lindsay Lohan and Rachel McAdams, among others) and its severely Darwinian vision of high-school life. Call it the survival of the pinkest.
And since preening, perfectly coiffed teenage bullies never go away (even if fashions, diets and cellphone models do), it’s no surprise that, 20 years later, there’s a new if not-improved “Mean Girls” opening in theaters. This latest redux, a movie adapted from a Broadway musical (not that you’d guess from the trailers) itself adapted from a movie, mostly cleaves to the original story: Once again, a sheltered naif named Cady Heron (here played by “Mare of Easttown’s” Angourie Rice), who grew up home-schooled in Kenya, finds herself navigating the treacherous wilds of an all-American high school. Taking a cue from her zoologist mom (Jenna Fischer), Cady approaches the experience as a kind of behavioral experiment, which is how she falls in with the most envied, feared and despised girls in school, known as the Plastics. There’s Regina, of course, hiding barracuda fangs behind a glitter-lipped smile, but also her pink-clad entourage of Gretchen (Bebe Wood) and Karen (Avantika), who set Cady on the path to popularity by inviting her to sit with them at lunch.
Which brings us back to those cheese fries. Your cholesterol won’t spike when they get their big, drippy close-up, but your heart may sink a little. It all smacks of a certain misguided completism, as if the filmmakers were desperate to reassure us that no “Mean Girls” fan will be left unserved. Instead, nearly every scene, subplot and gag from the original will be painstakingly revived and revisited, sometimes with a wink and sometimes with an insipid burst of song and dance. As it happens, those fries arrive during Regina’s big intro number: “My name is Regina George / And I am a massive deal / Fear me, love me / Stand and stare at me / And these, these are real,” she croons, gesturing bosomward.
Rapp played Regina on Broadway for several months starting in 2019, and it takes nothing away from the honed, glittering malevolence of her performance to note that a great villain deserves a better theme song. (This number and many others, reworked from the stage show, are by the composer Jeff Richmond and the lyricist Nell Benjamin.) There’s something deflating about the winking, self-skewering air with which this lean, mean teen queen presents herself; it was precisely her lack of self-knowledge that made McAdams’ original Regina so spectacularly vicious and so divinely funny. She was both imperious and utterly impervious to criticism; the slightest hint of self-mockery would have proved anathema to the character and lethal to the comedy.
That’s not to suggest that the new “Mean Girls” should be graded on how dutifully it follows its source. To expect conformity, after all, would risk perpetuating the Plastics’ own mistake, forcing a promising newcomer to be nothing more than an expert piece of mimicry. But the very trouble with this remake is that the directors, Samantha Jayne and Arturo Perez Jr., working from Fey’s much-updated script, seem bent on inviting precisely those comparisons. Sometimes the callbacks can be charming, as when Fey and her old “Saturday Night Live” colleague Tim Meadows sweetly reprise their roles as wry, well-meaning faculty members. Elsewhere, the movie just seems to be checking off boxes. There’s Regina’s self-consciously cool mom (Busy Philipps), there’s a demonstrably more foul-mouthed version of the Mathletes dude (Mahi Alam). Not even a well-known twist involving a school bus can proceed without being winkingly, repeatedly foreshadowed.
Beneath the aggressively showy camerawork (courtesy of Bill Kirstein) and the confetti-explosion musical numbers (choreographed by Kyle Hanagami), the story’s bare bones remain mostly intact. Cady’s actual, non-Plastic friends are still the acerbic, art-loving Janis (Auli’i Cravalho) and the boisterous, “almost too gay to function” Damian (Jaquel Spivey), who, befitting their wised-up outsider status, also serve as the story’s fourth-wall-busting musical narrators. They’re experts on the school and its various cliques, some of which have been wisely updated for contemporary sensitivities. (So long, “Unfriendly Black Hotties”; hello, “Woke Seniors.”)
When Regina thwarts Cady’s crush on her ex-boyfriend, Aaron (Christopher Briney), she sets in motion a sabotage scheme that Cady, Janis and Damian map out in their conspiratorial big number, “Revenge Party.” But Cady’s double-agent shenanigans predictably backfire, as she becomes the very Plasticine image she pretends to despise — a transformation that feels all the more potent when mediated by the screens and filters of social media. (This one is basically “Meme Girls.”)
So why does it all feel so laborious and overworked, so frantically self-regarding? It has something to do with the insipid quality of the songs, none of which threaten to lodge themselves in your brain the way the first movie’s lines so effortlessly do. For every tune that opens a poignant window into a character’s turmoil (like “What’s Wrong With Me?,” Gretchen’s quavering cry for help), there seem to be at least three or four that feel egregiously padded, underlining story beats that don’t exactly cry out for psychological elaboration. Fey’s original script was, among other things, a model of narrative concision (the movie clocked in at 97 minutes to this one’s 112), and it said more with Cady’s droll voice-over than the musical can manage with a full-blown medley.
That voice-over was delivered, of course, by Lohan, whose still-undersung “Mean Girls” performance (which came on the heels of her equally sharp work in 2003’s “Freaky Friday” remake) remains a pure and pitch-perfect distillation of star power. Crucially, she makes Cady as vivid and charismatic in her awkward deer-in-the-headlights moments as she is when her own Plastics reign of terror begins. It’s a terrific performance, and it’s one of many things that this overworked remake can’t duplicate, no matter how hard it tries. And oh, how it tries, to the point where the original “Mean Girls” would be thoroughly justified in asking, “Why are you so obsessed with me?”
Rating: PG-13, for sexual material, strong language and teen drinking
Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes
Playing: Starts Jan. 12 in wide release