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The New ‘Mean Girls’ Isn’t Mean Enough

Oh, and it isn’t good enough either.

10:07 AM CST on January 12, 2024

Promotional still

When the first trailer for the new Mean Girls musical was released a couple of months ago, reactions ranged from cautious excitement to utter confusion. A friend of mine put it best: “Why the fuck are we doing this again?” The trailer promised it “isn’t your mother’s Mean Girls,” but exactly whose Mean Girls it would be remained unclear. It also did its best to conceal the fact that it’s a musical by not featuring a big musical number. A musical that hides its musicality right out of the gate—that doesn’t bode well.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m a huge fan of 1) the original Mean Girls and 2) musicals. But after sitting through the musical version of Mean Girls, I can safely say that the two go together like Kälteen bars and weight loss. If there's a way to make this concept work somehow, writer Tina Fey, composer Jeff Richmond (also Fey’s husband), and lyricist/composer Nell Benjamin sure couldn't figure it out.

The 2004 Mean Girls has no shortage of missteps and flaws, and frankly, its very premise feels misguided in 2024. It’s your classic fish-out-of-water story. Teenager Cady (that’s kay-dee, not cad-dee!) Heron moves back to the U.S. after growing up in Kenya, where her mom worked as a research zoologist. Because she was homeschooled and didn’t have access to the Western world, she doesn’t understand how everyday teenage life works. She makes a couple of outcast friends; they warn her about Queen Bee Mean Girl Regina George and then hatch a plan to ruin Regina’s life before Cady gets lost in the sauce of revenge.

In 2004, that plot at least made some sense. But in 2024, Kenya now boasts some of the fastest internet speeds in Africa. And you’re telling me that the teenage daughter of a research zoologist in Kenya isn’t broadcasting her cool-ass non-stop-safari life all over TikTok? I’m not buying it. In the real world, Cady would amass a huge online following after at least one video of a lion went viral; then she’d get canceled when an old problematic tweet surfaced. 

One of the biggest missteps with this new Mean Girls is Reneé Rapp as the infamous Regina George. That’s not Rapp’s fault—she did an exceptional job filling Rachel McAdams’s shoes. But there’s only so much an actor can do to make up for lackluster writing. In the original movie, McAdams’s Regina George makes multiple homophobic and fatphobic jabs at other students and drops three big, bad “R” words, all in the first 30 minutes, immediately establishing just how awful she really is.

Now, obviously, in 2024, a PG-13 movie isn’t going to feature blatant homophobia or ableist slurs, and I’m certainly not saying it should. But the new Mean Girls didn’t replace those examples of meanness with… well, anything. Aside from a few snippy remarks towards her fellow Plastics, Gretchen Wieners and Karen Shetty, Regina never bares her claws. Instead, we’re simply told that she’s mean through song—and an incredibly subpar song at that—while Regina snarls at a girl who’s canoodling with Gretchen’s uninterested love interest. For context, 2004 Regina phones the girl’s mom and poses as Planned Parenthood calling with her test results to break the pair up. 2024 Regina growls while a bunch of theater kids sing and dance around doing their very best Lion King impersonations. (Get it? Because Africa!) 

This tamed-down Regina George is a symptom of two much larger problems with which the movie struggles. The first is character development and the fact that there is none. The second is pacing. For the first half hour or so, characters appear without much of an introduction at all. They’re just sort of there. While a ton of backstory is hardly necessary for characters like the uber-rich Gretchen or the dim-witted Karen, I would at least like to know which popular breakfast pastry Gretchen’s father invented. (Do kids even still eat Toaster Strudels?)

The entire first act feels rushed, while the second slows to an agonizing crawl before speeding through the third. The reason for this pacing fiasco is pretty apparent: the songs. The runtime on the original Mean Girls was 97 delightful minutes. The new one clocks in at 112 minutes but also crams a whopping 17 nauseating musical numbers into the mix. It would be one thing if the songs drove the plot forward. But the music is mostly underwhelming and pointless.

A rare exception is Regina George’s revenge track “World Burn.” Rapp’s voice sears with the ferocity of a thousand mean girls scorned as she enacts her revenge on Cady and the other Plastics who’ve turned their backs on her. But there’s only so much a singer can do to make dull songs seem interesting.

Another musical exception is “Sexy.” While the song itself is nothing special, the number gives the mononymed Avanitka a chance to really lean into the character of Karen. The youngest member of the cast at just 18, Avantika wasn’t even born when the original was released. That didn’t stop her from picking up right where Amanda Seyfried left off. Avantika’s movements and facial expressions are on point throughout, but during “Sexy,” in particular, she does a fantastic job channeling her inner Karen. 

Rapp and Avantika are the clear bright spots in the movie’s casting, along with Busy Phillips as Regina George’s mom. But they’re often overshadowed by the miscasting of nearly every other character. Auliʻi Cravalho’s Janis 'Imi'ike (Ian in the original) and Jaquel Spivey’s Damian Hubbard are both irritatingly overacted, and Christopher Briney’s Aaron Samuels had about as much charisma as a Toaster Strudel. Even Fey and Tim Meadows, reprising their roles as Ms. Norbury and Principal Duvall, feel sterile compared to the original. Jon Hamm has some funny moments, but he has far less screen time than Coach Carr did in 2004—probably because they killed the plot line about him banging students.

The movie’s lead, Angourie Rice, plays a better shy, timid teenager than Lindsay Lohan did but quickly falters as Cady transforms into a popular mean girl. As for Lohan, her brief cameo near the end got plenty of cheers from the audience, a reaction that the filmmakers must’ve expected given the brief pause before delivering her first line.

It’s hard to see this reboot as anything but a cash grab, which, hey, you go, Glen Coco! Because despite being mediocre at best, this movie’s likely to do pretty well at the box office before it’s relegated to the mercy of the Paramount+ algorithm in a few months.

GRADE: C+

Mean Girls is now playing in area theaters.

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