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REVIEW: The ‘Mean Girls’ musical is derivatively fun, but not as ‘grool’

Lé Baltar

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REVIEW: The ‘Mean Girls’ musical is derivatively fun, but not as ‘grool’

Paramount Pictures

'The jokes here are more politically correct, to the extent that it makes the film look so cautious and harmless'

Upon sharing online that I’ve seen the latest version of Mean Girls, the feature directorial debuts of Samantha Jayne and Arturo Perez Jr., the immediate question I got from a friend is how this remake is any different from the original, released in 2004. The inquiry is not without merit, despite the danger posed by measuring a work based on its predecessor, chiefly because the Mean Girls franchise has gone through quite an interesting life cycle.

The 2004 film, written by Tina Fey and directed by Mark Waters, was adapted from Rosalind Wiseman’s 2002 book Queen Bees and Wannabes. Fey then brought the film to Broadway in 2018, collaborating with Nell Benjamin and Jeff Richmond, the result of which now becomes the basis for the 2024 movie musical. Given Fey’s penchant for the material, even reprising her role as math teacher Ms. Norbury, alongside Tim Meadows as Principal Duvall, it’s only natural to interrogate why Fey and co-producer Lorne Michaels have given the work another go, and whether or not it is worth our time and effort to be going to theaters for it.

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What seems to be the utmost agenda of Mean Girls, of course aside from it being a musical film, is presenting itself as a work adaptive to the times. And it certainly feels like an updated version of the 2004 original, where “fetch” is still not happening, and so does “schquillz.” Cady Heron (Angourie Rice), after being homeschooled by her zoologist mom (Jenna Fischer) in Kenya (no longer the geographically vague “Africa” of the first movie), is set to enter a new habitat that is public high school, where fitting in doesn’t come so easily. Luckily for Cady, art nerds Janis ‘Imi’ike (Auliʻi Cravalho) and Damian Hubbard (Jaquel Spivey) are there to guide her through the frenzy, through a world ruled by “The Plastics,” at the center of which is queen bee Regina George (Reneé Rapp, who also played the role in the stage musical), alongside her minions Gretchen Wieners (Bebe Wood) and Karen Shetty (Avantika).

When Regina locks her eyes on Cady, inviting her to join them for lunch, the newbie gets swept up by the allure of the well-admired girl clique, which Janis and Damian urge her to be part of for some revenge, muddled further by Cady’s feelings for Regina’s ex-boyfriend, campus heartthrob Aaron Samuels (Christopher Briney). So begins this messy teenage high.

Fey’s writing makes Mean Girls so intoxicating in the same way that social media pulls us into rabbit holes. The fluctuations in the relationship of Cady and Regina pan out like clapbacks between micro-celebrities on Twitter, and we observe their every move like terminally online people jumping in on every trending topic just for the hell of it. There’s a reaction vid for every drama, a meme for every tea. And the film is bent on creating this temporal and cultural terrain that it becomes its design altogether, with Janis and Damian covering all the bases for us (even the film’s message) like TikTok narrators do.

The editing, populated by some exciting cameos, certainly favors this treatment in how it renders the details so sweeping and out of proportion. The theatricality of it all is loads of fun, but, at times, it ends up as a convenient option when the film refrains from fleshing out the changes in the behavior of its characters through dialogue.

Obviously, the jokes here are more politically correct, to the extent that it makes the film look so cautious and harmless. It’s a significant spin on the material, which is understandable given the temporal distance between the original and the remake, but this is also what besets the film, for it sacrifices its personality to avoid offending anyone, if not to be taken as progressive. Conceit is part of the reason why Mean Girls has gained the status of cult classic. It’s about stereotypes and vanity. It’s about mean people; of course it can get offensive. The characters are American high schoolers, so what do we really expect them to say? This retelling eschews all that, revealing how rickety its imagination is, especially if you already know where it’s heading, and the film is really keen on leading you to that grand statement.

Even as a movie musical, Mean Girls does not hold much water. While the film commits to its grandeur, the music pales in comparison. There is hardly any weight in it, save for Gretchen’s heart-rending “What’s Wrong with Me?,” allowing Wood to not only stand out in the film but bring so much complexity to her character. Spivey also makes Damian so captivating, precisely because his work is not one-note. But what confounds me most is how Rapp, despite her towering presence and appeal, doesn’t quite cut it as Regina. For some reason, her singing winds up so mumbly. And given how the songs are lacking, the directors resort to visual flair. They populate the frame with vibrant, bubblegum colors. They make the screen look like smartphone images, screencaps readily shared by any prying eyes. They break the fourth wall. But for all their efforts to make everything pop, the result is rather ornamental. You wait until the images leap, but they don’t. You wait for the emotional heft to kick in, but it won’t.

Mean Girls begins with so much excitement and fun, even when it’s derivative, until it eventually loses its steam. It has its gimmicks and it’s good at making moments. But in the end, it still leaves you confused about the necessity of this retelling. It’s not bad at all, but it’s also not as “grool,” as Cady puts it. Maybe that’s the point: a work that is great and cool in equal measure is simply hard to reproduce. –

Mean Girls is out in local cinemas this February 7.

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Lé Baltar

Lé Baltar is a Manila-based freelance journalist and film critic for Rappler. Currently serving as secretary of the Society of Filipino Film Reviewers (SFFR), Lé has also written for CNN Philippines Life, PhilSTAR Life, VICE Asia, Young STAR Philippines, among other publications. She is a fellow of the first QCinema International Film Festival Critics Lab.