“Like all history,” says an updated Damian (Jaquel Spivey) to the refreshed Cady Heron (Angourie Rice) and Janis (Auliʻi Cravalho), “this story is emotionally layered and culturally dense.” At the announcement of a new iteration of the 2004 cult classic, an adaptation of the Broadway musical that was adapted from the original film, many among the culturally fluent wondered whether those emotional layers would be gauzy and woven in nostalgia, laid with vibrant new meaning, or flaky and hard to look at, like a raw onion. However, the main question people had about remaking such a singular cultural phenomenon was why? The film had already stretched itself into a musical (a recent trend that begs the same question), and for it to then flip back into movie form, this time with the added baggage of choreography and song (in 2021, a slew of musical films adapted from Broadway bombed at the box office), made it difficult to believe that the new iteration would be anything more than a parody of a parody of itself. But maybe that could be a good thing?
Since the movie premiered two days ago, many critics and early viewers have battled over what viewers should take away from the new Mean Girls, should it offer anything to get. In a culture so rife with underwhelming overstimulation, what is one to make of “cultural density?” When one hears the word “dense,” it’s easy to think of its pejorative use, or perhaps to imagine a self-referential meme page that would make anyone want to burn all their Internet-connected devices and move to a small cabin in the woods. And as the film opens, with Cady singing in Kenya with her mom (Jenna Fischer), it is indeed easy to be overstimulated by the color and sound of the Dolby Cinema®, generally underwhelmed by the ready-made Muzak quality of the first tune, and ready, if not eager to throw the critical towel in.
The film proceeds more or less as the original does, with similar sequencing, shot for shot and beat for beat, except with wildly fluid and over-the-top choreographed interludes gliding between scenes, which Reneé Rapp’s Regina George dominates with an explosive charisma that, despite all odds, does manage to breathe a new charm into the tirelessly imitated original. Unlike the original, however, her and her plastics, Karen (Avantika) and Gretchen (Bebe Wood), are not able to breathe the same toxic life into their group dynamic. They apathetically take in Cady to my-fair-lady her into the image of their creator (Regina), whose ability to arouse fear and desire among virtually everyone in the school would have set George Bataille’s teeth chattering with joy; at this school, the limit does exist, and it’s a limit-experience of campy joy teetering on cringe.
Guided by another script from Tina Fey, the feature debut of directing duo Samantha Jayne and Arturo Perez Jr. keeps the spirit of the original, with some minor updates for a new generation. The characters dress like they looted all the maximalist kitsch of the Urban Outfitters surplus store in the San Fernando Valley, and that’s a compliment. The film is also woven with a pastiche of social media posts ranging from clones of TikTok to Instagram Live to YouTube that capture the flow of information, and in turn gossip, in the digital age. Surprisingly, this is achieved with a tact and verve that is generally hilarious, despite a conceit that would immediately make anyone who spends any time on social media immediately roll their eyes. And for their part, revisions to old quotes are also quite funny; there’s the hilarious excess of lines like “if you don’t dress slutty, that is slut-shaming us!” to bask in, as well as a wittier, raunchier update of Kevin G.’s (Mahi Alam) math rap.
The kinetic shot style employed by the directions befits the accelerated zeitgeist, although with very little pauses in the film’s narrative propulsion, there’s little room for the updated characters to fill the space of their predecessors. The musical numbers are impressively fluid but empty in substance (besides a number by Karen called “Sexy” that has a surprisingly nuanced perspective on contemporary feminism), and the characters are afforded little of the depth that, despite its exaggerated nature, made the original so touching. But maybe this is a good thing; maybe the answer to the question critics have asked about what we should take away from the update is simply a reminder of what birthed it. Another layer of a dense cultural history, degrees of separation from its core.
Famously, proponents of the school of New Criticism say that art that can’t stand on its own can’t be great. Obviously, the updated Mean Girls can’t stand on its own; it can’t even stand on something standing on its own. But critics asking what people should be “taking away” from the movie or what it’s “trying to say” are committing the same analytical grievance that has given birth to a period of unprecedented politicization and moralism in art. Yes, the film is carbon-copied like so many other corporatized pieces of ready-made, plastic entertainment. It packs no surprises, and ultimately it did not need to be made. But what film did “need” to be made? The answer, of course, is any film whose creator felt compelled to make it. Tina Fey’s decision to bring the musical version of Mean Girls to the big screen is successful in adding another layer of fun to its culturally dense history, assuming you aren’t dense enough to expect much more than what it is.
DIRECTOR: Samantha Jayne & Arturo Perez Jr.; CAST: Angourie Rice, Reneé Rapp, Auli’i Cravalho, Avantika; DISTRIBUTOR: Paramount Pictures; IN THEATERS: January 12; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 52 min.