Fey adds wit to familiar `Mean Girls'

April 30, 2004|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

As the head writer and Weekend Update co-anchor on Saturday Night Live, Tina Fey has become a comedy star by equating braininess with sexiness. She's done far more than any bimbo wearing specs as a "fashion statement" to negate that old Dorothy Parker couplet, "Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses."

But Fey's debut as a screenwriter and actor in the high-school comedy Mean Girls takes one giant step backward. She writes herself the role of a divorced math teacher who flounders until the principal (Tim Meadows) publicly calls her competent and attractive. And she's the only pretty female with glasses in this movie. Even the misfit teen heroine, a math whiz, goes without eyewear -- and would look at home as a model in a jeans commercial.

All Fey does is apply a smattering of wit to the story of a home-schooled girl named Cady Heron (Lindsay Lohan), rudely thrust into public high school on her 16th birthday. Her zoologist parents raised her in Africa until her mother got a tenured job at Northwestern University. Now Cady must adjust to the mores of the wildest creatures in a swank Chicago suburb -- its hormone-crazed teen-agers.

Mean Girls contains elements of every high-school semi-classic from The Breakfast Club to Heathers. Luckily, Fey and director Mark Waters put enough tricks up their actors' designer sleeves to keep the in-fights, back-stabs and flirtations from seeming like moldy oldies.

Cady initially connects only with the arty, lesbian-style Janis Ian (Lizzy Caplan) and Janis' best friend, the "almost too gay to function" Damian (Daniel Franzene). They goad her into infiltrating the ultra-chic trio known as "The Plastics" in order to get dirt on the group's Queen Bee, Regina (Rachel McAdams). They don't realize that Cady can become the thing she hates. Sure enough, when Regina steals Cady's first crush, Aaron (Jonathan Bennett), Cady learns how to out-maneuver this miniskirted master of manipulation. By then, no one is safe.

The stuff about cliques, gossip, boy-stealing and emotional bullying is so familiar that were it not for the fizz Fey occasionally brings to the material, the movie would be stale on opening. (The film is based on Rosalind Wiseman's best-seller, Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends and Other Realities of Adolescence.) Luckily, Fey has a broad fantasy-slapstick streak that can be brutally funny, as when a speeding school bus delivers some rough justice. In Fey's best comic coup, Africa-bred Cady envisions kids at a mall fountain as jungle creatures in heat.

As a writer, Fey basically remains a sketch artist. She relies too heavily on voice-over to let us know that Cady is both repelled by and attracted to Regina (Cady views her as a real live Barbie); at certain points, the movie simply illustrates the narration. Before long, the lessons start piling up -- that good guys don't want girls who feel they must pretend to be stupid, or that good feeling is built on generosity. Still, Fey keeps most of these lessons short and prickly.

There's a nice throwaway gag of Regina's kid sister copying everything she sees on the tube, from dirty dancing to girls going wild. Too bad the main characters often feel throwaway too. How can Aaron sleep with that blond witch Regina and still come off as a decent guy?

Actually, as Regina, McAdams provides the movie with its spark plug. She portrays Regina as the suburban equivalent of street-smart -- make that mall-smart. And she effortlessly italicizes her own lithe prettiness. Performers don't often get credit for putting over roles like these, so let me be the first to say that, in the words of Elton John, "She's got what it takes and she knows how to use it."

Mean Girls

Starring Lindsay Lohan and Tina Fey

Directed by Mark Waters

Rated PG-13

Released by Paramount

Time 91 minuteS

SUN SCORE **

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