A Musical Reboot That Can’t Cross the Generational Gap

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Written By Pinang Driod

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Updated at 11:39 a.m. ET on January 12, 2023

This article contains mild spoilers for the new Mean Girls film.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever been personally victimized by a Hollywood reboot. I’ll go first: The latest ouroboros of intellectual property juicing to get under my skin is the new Mean Girls film, which is adapted from a Broadway musical based on the original 2004 movie. (You wouldn’t know it from watching most of the curiously tuneless trailers, though!) Somewhere inside this extended branding exercise is the familiar tale of Cady Heron (played by Angourie Rice in the new film), a teenage girl thrust into the baffling social hierarchy of a fictional Illinois high school after being homeschooled her entire life.

Twenty years after the eminently quotable bildungsroman first hit theaters, and more than six years after Cady made her stage debut, the new teen comedy attempts to extract even more profit from the fish-out-of-water story by infusing it with song, dance, and fresh attempts to woo younger viewers. But along the way, it loses the bite of its cinematic predecessor. The result is a painfully self-aware pastiche that fails to capture the acerbic magnetism of the original movie, the campy charm of musicals, or the real talent of its young cast.

Part of the disconnect stems from what the film abandons in order to make space for its musical elements. In the 2004 movie, Lindsay Lohan’s diaristic narration gave viewers a window into the bewilderment that colored Cady’s earliest days as a high-school student and her escalating inner turmoil upon befriending a trio of uber-popular girls known as the Plastics. The new Mean Girls dispenses with Cady’s humorous assessments of “girl world”—and with some of the sharp expository dialogue that complemented them. Many characters, including the queen bee Regina George (Renée Rapp), introduce themselves through song. Rapp’s vocals are impressive, but watching her sing “My name is Regina George / And I am a massive deal” simply doesn’t pack the same punch as hearing a starstruck Lohan describe Regina in voice-over as “the Barbie doll I never had.” None of the other songs is particularly striking either, and only a handful of scenes are playful enough to justify the fourth-wall breaks.

Worse yet, a series of social-media montages sometimes creates the overall sensation of being stuck inside an infinite TikTok algorithm—complete with conspicuous product placement for Spotify and e.l.f. cosmetics. A well-placed Megan Thee Stallion cameo pokes fun at the effect, but the app aesthetic is too central for her complaint to feel like a reservation shared by the filmmakers. And although social-media-fueled bullying is a far more pronounced issue for young people now than it was in 2004, the TikTok overkill is among the most obvious signs of the new adaptation’s generational confusion. Mean Girls haphazardly combines Millennial-friendly jokes about Cloverfield and Juno with conflicting ideas about Gen Z’s politics (and humor): a little critique of girlboss feminism here, a little mixed messaging on body positivity there, and throw in some questionable commentary on queerbaiting too.

No character is a more regrettable example of the film’s failure to reconcile its source material with its desire to appeal to younger viewers than Regina. Where the original film largely coalesced around the idea that “evil takes a human form in Regina George,” the new movie attempts to soften the socialite, aligning more with the play’s depiction of her as a somewhat tortured soul. In one scene, for example, Regina kisses her ex-boyfriend, Aaron (Christopher Briney), after promising Cady that she’ll help her hook up with him. Whereas the original film depicts this as a spiteful power move, the 2024 version is muddled in its messaging: Before Regina kisses Aaron, she tells him she has “a lot of unresolved trauma” from their breakup.

That line might have worked as a somewhat on-the-nose depiction of how therapy-speak gets weaponized in modern relationships—after all, Regina was the one to dump him. But the tone quickly pivots when a musical number begins. “People forget I’m human too,” Rapp sings earnestly, and it becomes clear that the film is building toward a redemption arc that defangs its “apex predator” (as she’s called by a literal chorus of her classmates) in the process.

Rapp is front and center in the film’s promotional materials, a notable shift from the aughts marketing campaigns in which the Plastics were all pictured together or with Lohan’s Cady in the lead spot. The 24-year-old actor and pop singer, who played Regina in the Broadway musical from 2019 until it was cut short by the pandemic in 2020, is a formidable talent. But despite Rapp co-writing some new songs, Mean Girls does her a tremendous disservice by anesthetizing the spiky character that helped catapult Rachel McAdams to pop-culture ubiquity. The new Regina doesn’t write slurs in the Burn Book; she might undercut Cady’s hopes for dating Aaron one day, but she doesn’t do it by telling him that the exchange student who moved from Kenya “saved this Kleenex you used, and she said she’s gonna do some kind of African voodoo with it.”

I certainly still cringe at some lines in Tina Fey’s 2004 screenplay, which frames Cady as a newcomer to civilization who’s adjusting to life away from the monolithic wildlands of “Africa.” But what makes some of these Mean Girls edits so frustrating is how unwilling the script seems to let its characters be, well, mean. Making up any lie about a friend—much less one about her doing “some kind of African voodoo”—is a terrible thing to do. So is maligning a onetime friend with a homophobic slur. But teens, like all people, can be incredibly cruel to one another, and Mean Girls was always a story about the dangers of unleashing—and rewarding—those reprehensible instincts. Even if young people now are more socially aware and considerate than the generations before them, that doesn’t necessarily mean that their hostile interactions always steer clear of ethical land mines.

Mean Girls is not without its highlights. Several returning cast members successfully pluck at Millennial-nostalgia strings: Fey is back as the long-suffering math teacher, Ms. Norbury; Tim Meadows reprises his role as the exasperated principal; Lohan even has a brief but charming appearance toward the end of the film. There are plenty of other inspired casting choices too: Busy Philipps is stellar as Regina’s mom, as is Jenna Fischer playing Cady’s, and there’s a whole crew of exciting young actors, such as those playing Cady’s best friends, Damian (Jaquel Spivey) and Janis (Auli‘i Cravalho). And to be fair, the task of retrofitting a decades-old studio comedy for new audiences—by taking a jukebox musical off the stage and into movie theaters, no less—was probably always going to be a tricky endeavor. But if I ever find myself missing the joy of Mean Girls, I’d rather go buy a pink Hollister polo and pop in a DVD.

A previous version of this article misstated that the Mean Girls musical movie is a jukebox musical.


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