Yes, yes, Lindsay Lohan screwed up her movie career and is now reduced to posing in Playboy. With that out of the way, can we talk about her best film, 2004’s Mean Girls? Because it’s actually a lot of fun.
Lohan plays Cady Heron, the daughter of zoologists who has lived her entire life home-schooled in Africa, and enters the American school system for the first time at age 16. Cady is great at math and studies the people around her like a zoologist, so she becomes friends with nerdy social outcasts Janis (Lizzy Caplan) and Damien (Daniel Franzese). On the other hand, she looks like Lindsay Lohan, so she gets noticed by the Plastics, the trio of evil hotties who rule the school’s social system with an iron fist. Neither Cady nor Janis like the Plastics’ leader, Regina George (Rachel McAdams), and they decide to use her meanness to turn her friends against her.
The script was adapted by Tina Fey from a non-fiction book that looked at high school cliques much like Cady does: as animal packs. Although 30 Rock was still three years in Fey’s future, you can see the germ of that writing style in this movie: rapid-fire dialogue, deadpan wit, characters who are funny because they’re oblivious to the world around them. Like Joss Whedon, Fey does not work in teenagers’ slang; she creates a new rhythm of dialogue that makes normal words and phrases sound like slang.
There’s not much surprising about the actual structure of the plot. If you haven’t already figured out that Cady will have a crisis of conscience, fearing that she has become the monster that she wants to destroy, then you probably don’t watch too many movies. As soon as the words “Spring Fling dance” are dropped in Act One, you have a pretty good idea where Act Three is going to conclude. This is the sort of movie where that razor-sharp dialogue helps you savor the journey more than the destination.
I was down with that journey right up until the last 15 minutes or so. Then, I got the feeling that Fey might have written herself into a corner: a dark, constricting corner that the studio feared would not allow this movie to end well for anyone involved. She gets herself out of it with a painfully easy ending: Cady basically backs her way into everything she could have wanted at the start of the movie. I would have preferred a more modestly happy ending, where Cady remains an outcast but makes up with Janis; perhaps finding a role as a Mathlete as well. As it was, I had the feeling that Cady acted horribly, did the right thing only because she had no choice, and received every reward possible for it.
It’s easy to see why people were expecting big things from Lohan as a result of this movie, because she does not have an easy role. Fey’s sharp dialogue, which makes the characters seem old behind their years, is tough enough; it’s not a coincidence that McAdams was 26 at the time of shooting. Lohan, by contrast, was 17. Additionally, Lohan has to sell herself as a zoologist/Mathlete, which isn’t easy because, as mentioned above, she looks an awful lot like a Plastic. It’s not an Oscar-caliber performance – Lohan’s “sad” face looks an awful lot like her “thoughtful” face – but it should have been a terrific start to a career.
The adult characters in this movie are a mixed bag. Fey herself has perhaps the most important adult role as Cady’s math teacher, and she’s great. It would be wrong to call her character “world-weary,” it’s more like she’s “teenager-world-weary.” She’s seen all of this before – sees it every year, I’d expect – and she knows how completely unimportant it will be for these kids in six years or so. Tim Meadows has a couple of great scenes as the school’s principal, and a couple of terrible ones. Fey’s SNL running mate (and future Baby Mama co-star) Amy Poehler is badly under-used as Regina’s “cool mom”; one imagines that all of that character’s best moments were left on the cutting room floor.
Fey has said something interesting in interviews about Mean Girls: adults see it and laugh, but teenagers do not. They see it as reality television, and they’re pretty close to all of the pain and drama. With all respect to whatever teenagers Fey was referring to, that seems hard to believe. The world of this movie is heightened enough that it doesn’t seem very real at all: you might see a character or hear a line that reminds you of a way, way, way bigger version of a kid you knew in school, but never for a moment does this movie seem like reality to me. That’s why I liked it. As Lohan’s life would prove, reality is much more depressing.
Reviewed by Mark Young