Sometimes, that subversive kick turns to tedium, bite to trite. As the internet informed everybody this week, it’s the ten-year anniversary of Mean Girls. Betsy Cass returns to 10YA with her own take upon rewatching the Tina Fey-penned hit.
I’m willing to bet that most of you didn’t see this movie in the theatre. If you did, you almost definitely didn’t go opening weekend to a matinee screening where the next oldest person in that theatre was 12 years old. Imagine my terror when I looked around at the audience, or when the trailer for Sleepover with Alexa Vega started to roll. “I’ve made a terrible mistake,” I thought. “I’m a college student for Christ’s sake, what am I doing here?” I considered sneaking out to avoid any further embarrassment, but I’d paid for a ticket so of course I didn’t. Instead I was won over within the first five minutes by the bleakly hilarious sparring between Tina Fey and Tim Meadows. Not only was it clear it was worth hanging with Fey for the rest of the movie, but it also became apparent this was going to hit a little bit closer to home than I’d anticipated.
The film takes place in the northern Chicago suburbs. It was released just a few months after a group of girls in the western suburbs because infamous thanks to a cell phone video of them beating the ever-living crap out of another girl. While that type of thing is pretty common now, this was a BIG DEAL back then. It just so happens those girls went to high school in the town when I was born. They went to the high school I probably would have went to if I hadn’t moved when I was young. The scene in the film where all the kids turn into wild animals and tear each other apart? That’s at the mall where I used to go with my grandmother. And the mean girls in the movie acted like the ones I was somehow too awkward to notice had bullied me through 11 years straight of school.
When the credits rolled and the rest of the audience slunk disappointedly from the theatre, I set out racking my brain for whom else might get as much out of the film as I did. I tried to convince everyone that it wasn’t just another teen movie. “Seriously guys, it’s really funny. Tina Fey wrote it. And there’s a lonely outcast named Janis Ian!” The last point was always met with crickets. Luckily it wasn’t long before the film took off. It was considered a major hit for Fey and Lohan and probably led directly to Fey getting the opportunity to write and star in her own sitcom, which I’ll get back to in a bit.
I watched the film a few more times over the next couple years, still getting the same slightly subversive thrill from it. None of the viewings stand out in my mind until I was almost finished with grad school. A group of us had convened at a friend’s apartment just before heading out on the annual school sponsored booze cruise.We were surfing channels, killing time. Next. Nothing on. Next. Nothing on. Until we landed about halfway throughMean Girls. Immediately, all 10 or so of us were enraptured. Ten girls who passed as adults were glued to the screen. Suddenly, the teens onscreen erupt into animalistic behaviour. Pawing and screaming at each other in the halls over the contents of a burn book. Tim Meadows sweeps into the foreground with a baseball bat and proclaims, “I did NOT leave the south side for this.” Did I mention we were sitting in an apartment on the south side of Chicago, getting ridiculously dressed up and about to head out for the patently north side evening of boat drinking on Lake Michigan? We all lost it instantaneously. It was a line that had never meant much to me before, but this time seemed like it could almost be the most important one spoken in the whole film. It made a perfect mockery of both the bitchy teen angst that dominates the characters as well as the silly and self-indulgent celebration we were about to embark on.
This movie clearly followed me through my life in ways very few pieces of art ever do. At this point it’s been six years since I watched any portion of the film, so I was pretty excited to revisit it. But I was surprised to find that the movie I just watched bore strikingly little resemblance to the film I remember. While the opening few minutes still have a misleading amount of bite, the rest of the film comes off as comparatively toothless and weary. The only bits that don’t feel like they’re straight out of another teen flick seem like dress rehearsals for scenes on 30 Rock. And I mean the bad seasons of 30 Rock. The early episodes of the show were much more mean-spirited than most people remember and were all the better for it. While Fey eventually found a way to make friendlier comedy that still had a kick in season 7, it’s not something she was able to achieve in her Mean Girlsscreenplay. While I know some raunchier bits were neutered in order to achieve a PG-13 rating, anyone who gets that much zip into a network TV show should be able to get it into a movie for teens.
I am now left in a rather embarrassing position. Was I completely wrong about the film for all that time? It’s always painful to look back at something you held in such esteem and wonder, “What was I thinking?” Or is there some lurking reason I can’t appreciate it anymore? As far as I can tell, my colleagues are still able to see the worthwhile in the film. And it’s not that I think it’s bad. Rather it’s . . . just fine. Perhaps I’ve watched Heathers too many times, which sets a painfully high benchmark for any comedy, not just those set in a high school. Maybe it’s because I know Fey can do so much better. Or maybe it’s just that the themes of the film no longer feel relevant. But on top of that, the actual facets of the filmmaking are letting me down this time. The plot is on especially egregious rails. Lohan’s performance now seems to stand out for the wrong reasons against the rest of the cast. And with the exception of the dialogue of the school’s teachers, the jokes don’t stick their landings as strongly as I remember. As the final scene rolled, the whole thing seemed so trite. And I realized I just didn’t care. Not about Cady Heron. Not about The Plastics. Okay maybe I cared a little about Janis and Damian, but very little else. And I was forced to admit that, sadly, Mean Girls really is just another teen movie.
Over at The Atlantic, Megan Garber argues that the film’s “enduring charm” partially relies on the broad look it takes at the high school experience. It could be anywhere; it could be anyone. But I get the sense rather that it can’t be anyone. It can only be no one. When I originally watched the film I could see myself in it, but only because I was picking up on the incidental, irrelevant details. Once my direct relationship to them fell away, it became clear that there was nothing left that resonated. Mean Girls seems overly concerned with trying to pin down a universal version of the female high school experience, and in doing so, it ends up portraying a world that is neither weighted in reality enough to be relatable nor unique enough to be enthralling. It tries so hard to be inclusive that it ends up lacking the details that can make it come alive. Of course if it were blisteringly funny I wouldn’t make these quibbles. But quibbles I must make. While the films remains likable and at times ambitious, I ultimately think it’s a spurious entry in the teen movie canon that fails to live up to the goodwill it’s earned over the years.
“But honey, you love Ladysmith Black Mambazo!” My feelings on the film have changed, but this is still one of my favorite lines of all time.
The first several minutes are still pretty golden. “I have a nephew named Anfernee. I know how upset he gets when I call him Anthony. Almost as upset as I get when I think about the fact that my sister named him Anfernee.” Tim Meadows is the best part of this movie on every level.
I’m still disappointed when I see Lizzy Caplan out of goth attire. She’ll always be Janis Ian to me!
Similarly, I now find it weird that someone as consistently frumpy as Rachel McAdams won the role of Regina George.
I never gave Seyfried enough credit for her brilliantly idiotic performance. It’s not easy to play that dumb.
Why did I never notice that Lohan looks 10 years younger than all the other high school students? I actually remember thinking Lohan looked “so old” when this movie came out compared to her previous stuff.
I had somehow forgotten that Tina Fey was in the movie. I really like that her character is incredibly unpleasant.
Speaking of unpleasant, this cemented my hatred of Amy Poehler.
Mean Girls director Mark Waters is the brother of Heathers screenwriter Daniel Waters. There are loads of Heather references in the film, but by far the best is the inclusion of the “lunchtime survey.”
Not really directly related to the movie, but I’m amazed at both how iconic and how hideous this movie’s poster is.