Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Mean Girls (2004)

*This post is part of the "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" blogathon at The Film Experience. Originally, this film was covered in 2010, but since I hadn't participated back then - and Nathaniel is opening it for new additions - I couldn't help but chime in.*

It's remarkable that we're actually coming up on the tenth anniversary of Mean Girls, which debuted in theaters on April 30, 2004. For one thing, I was in eighth grade at the time, and the film seemed like a portentous omen of what the next four years would be like for me (don't worry, I turned out fine; I found my "clique" with the band geeks and chorus kids, and we were awesome). But what's really astonishing is how successful the movie continues to be. Upon its release, Mean Girls did fine at the box office, but it was hardly a smash. But thanks to a fan base that is passionate and constantly growing, the film is as enormous as ever, thanks to cable re-runs, DVDs, endlessly quotable lines (even the White House does it), and Tumblr-ready .gif-able moments. It was a film made for our Internet age, before these social media sites even really existed.

More after the jump.

But it's also interesting to think about how it was a perfect confluence of talent at the exact right moment in their careers. Just take a look at where everyone was in 2004:

Lizzy Caplan, playing gothy Janis Ian, was an unknown entity. She would earn even more cult cred for the short-lived Starz comedy Party Down, becoming an Internet-favored actress, and ultimately landing a lead role in Showtime's drama series Masters of Sex.

Similarly, Amanda Seyfried, playing dim-bulb "Plastic" Karen, was a relative unknown. Her career would take off as a result, with parts in films as diverse as Mamma Mia, In Time, Les Miserables, and the upcoming Seth MacFarlane comedy A Million Ways to Die in the West.

Tim Meadows (Principal Duvall), Amy Poehler (Regina's mom), and Tina Fey (Ms. Norbury; she also wrote the screenplay) were primarily known as cast members of Saturday Night Live, and only Meadows had really broken out before this film (with the noted flop The Ladies Man).

Rachel McAdams, of course, had a banner year in 2004. The combination of playing Queen Bee Regina George in this film and her role opposite Ryan Gosling in The Notebook made her an instant star, which she would follow-up with another smash the following year in Wedding Crashers before slowly fading out of the spotlight. She's attempted a comeback, most recently with About Time last year.

And then there's Lindsay Lohan. There's already been so much written about Lohan post-Mean Girls, so I won't reiterate the gritty details of her spiral from promising actress to self-made tabloid fodder. But the former of those is abundantly apparent in this film. As new-kid-in-school Cady Herron, Lohan is a comic wonder, perfectly nailing Cady's transition from shy sweetheart to treacherous manipulator. She had an undeniably bright future ahead of her, and even if the subsequent decade squandered most of it on breakdowns and awful movies, at least Mean Girls continues to stand as an artifact of what could have been.

A true testament to the film's staying power is the biting, quippy script that Fey wrote for this film. The film is a tour de force of razor-sharp satire, which is all the more impressive considering that the book the film is based on, Rosalind Wiseman's Queen Bees and Wannabees, is essentially a self-help book for mothers with teenage daughters. Fey turns it into a post-Y2K version of Heathers, the 1988 film that serves as the most obvious forbearer to this film (another being 1995's Clueless). Fey and director Mark Andrews get a lot of mileage out of Cady's background of being raised in the African bush by sociologists, wasting no opportunity to present North Shore High as an unruly jungle, where the popular girls - the "Plastics" - are the top of the food chain. The flights-of-fancy cutaways that populate the movie are essential to this aesthetic: through Cady's point-of-view, we see her fellow students devolve into beasts at the watering hole, behaving on primal instinct rather than wit and cunning.

Cleverly, these fantasy sequences set up the epic melee in the film's third act, when the Plastics' "Burn Book" is turned in and published by Regina in a scheme to bring Cady down. The junior girls see all of the mean things written about them, realize that their friends have been saying awful things behind their backs, and a full-scale fight breaks out. Even though this sequence is based in the "reality" of the film, it feels like a payoff of Cady's mental comparisons.

*Best Shot*

And, in the midst of it all, there stands Regina George. The queen of the jungle, she surveys the scene with a sense of pride in her accomplishments. Even after Cady tricked her into eating an "all-carb diet" to loose weight, knocking her down several rungs in the social order, Regina is confident in her ability to still hold power over everyone in the school. You can knock a good queen bee down, but what happens when you make a bee mad? Everyone gets stung.

Looking back on the film for this post, I realized I had forgotten that there's a very sad idea at its core: Regina and other "mean girls" make people's lives miserable. In between the war of sabotage between Cady and Regina, Cady's attempts to "crack" Regina's right-hand Gretchen (Lacey Chabert) reveals the fallout of their friendship. Gretchen has given up a lot, even pretending to dislike her parents' gifts, because Regina so thoroughly controls her life. Both Gretchen and Karen - and, inevitably, Cady at her worst - define themselves by Regina's terms. They've convinced themselves, to paraphrase Cady, that being miserable but popular is better than being happy and unpopular. In hindsight, with maturity, this sounds insane, but I can vividly remember that being the prevailing mindset at my high school. So it's surprisingly heartbreaking when Gretchen cracks and tells Cady about how horrible Regina makes her life.

But of course, what people always (and rightfully remember) about this film is how incredibly funny it is. Every time I see this movie, I'm always amazed by how it deftly handles a number of disparate tones, switching from ditzy goofiness to dark sightgags to scathing sarcasm with remarkable ease. It's a testament to how in-tune everyone involved was with Fey's sense of humor, and if you squint hard enough, you can make out elements of this film that would carry over into her NBC comedy series 30 Rock. So I'll close this out with a few images that I always find funny:

Just how bad is Regina George? Obviously, she once punched a girl in the face, and "it was awesome." But I love when, in the assembly after the Burn Book reveal, Ms. Norbury asks anyone who's personally felt victimized by Regina to raise their hands:

Nobody is safe.

Speaking of Duvall, I'm also really fond of the fact that when he's alerted to the riot happening in the hallway, the first thing he does is grab a baseball bat:

Sorry for the blurriness.

I also really like that this action is subtly referenced when he later proclaims, "oh hell no, I did not leave the Southside for this." He's clearly been in this sort of situation before.

Finally, probably my favorite little beat in the entire movie is the smile that comes across Karen's face during the trust fall. Gretchen apologizes to the school, claiming she "can't help it that she's popular," and as she prepares to fall backward into the crowd. But everyone else has backed away, leaving only Karen:

As we say in the South, bless her heart.

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