By Jessica Kiang | The Playlist April 29, 2014 at 2:30PM
Ten years ago tomorrow, a modestly-budgeted female-led high-school comedy opened across the U.S. Based on the debut feature script from a “Saturday Night Live” writer, adapted from a non-fiction self-help book, starring a coterie of largely unknown faces, and centering on a Disney contract player who’d had a big hit the year before with “Freaky Friday” but a miss earlier in 2004 with “Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen,” the film is a rare example of bottled lightning, of a whole that adds up to much more than the sum of the seemingly fairly standard parts. Why else would we be sitting down to write about “Mean Girls” on its 10th birthday?
Financially, the film, directed by Mark Waters (whose own subsequent career, “Mr. Popper’s Penguins,“ “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past,” has been less stellar), was undoubtedly a hit, but not one that, like “Freaky Friday” before it, crossed the all-important $100m domestic marker. In fact, as the 28th biggest film of 2004, its take lay an order of magnitude behind several other of that year’s PG-13 comedies— “Fifty First Dates,” “Dodgeball” “Meet The Fockers”—while the younger edge of its demographic was apparently flocking to the “The Princess Diaries 2,” ‘Lemony Snicket’ and of course ‘Harry Potter’ in droves. But how many of us quote “Meet the Fockers” on a more or less daily basis? Has anything from “The Princess Diaries 2” ever happened the way “fetch” didn’t? When Tina Fey, then pre-“30 Rock,” read “Queen Bees and Wannabes” and called ‘SNL’ producer Lorne Michaels to discuss making it into a narrative film script, could she possibly have known the resulting movie would have this lasting an impact? It had to have been some sort of fifth sense, like she had ESPN or something.
Because “Mean Girls' ” real legacy is not in its blockbusting box office, but in how well it’s lasted, and in fact, grown in esteem. At the time it was a delight, and felt buoyed up on a thermal current of zeitgeist, but with retrospect we can also see how it was built to last, packaged so perfectly and with such insight that it has had a much longer shelf life than many others of its ilk. There is in general something about the universality of the teen experience that when a film does it right it can inspire little less than lifelong devotion in a large swathe of its audience—just check out how passionately/nostalgically people will talk about “The Breakfast Club” or “Clueless” or “Heathers.” So as “Mean Girls” becomes the latest inductee into that particular hall of fame, we thought we’d celebrate its birthday/give ourselves an excuse to rewatch it by taking a look at the main reasons for its lasting appeal. Get in, loser, we’re going shopping.
1. A Cast Loaded With Future Stars
“I can’t help it that I’m so popular.” - Gretchen
“Mean Girls” provided breakout roles for so many young actors who went on to bright careers since—it was Amanda Seyfried’s first big-screen credit (she was neck-and-neck with Rachel McAdams for the Regina role, initially), while Lizzy Caplan had a string of TV appearances prior but nothing notable. Tina Fey, herself, of course plays the teacher Ms. Norbury (in a performance that she’s endearingly self-deprecating about on the DVD commentary—she is a bit ropey in parts) while Amy Poehler steals everything in sight in her couple of scenes as Regina’s mother with the breasts so fake she can’t feel her dog chewing on her nipple. Those two ladies are obviously now the reigning queens of TV comedy, and pretty much unassailable icons to anyone who doesn’t hate joy.
And then there’s the central duo, who almost feel cast against subsequent type. Lindsay Lohan originally read for Regina, but the success of “Freaky Friday” led to her being given the lead role of Cady, in both a nod to her higher profile but also a shift in what producers believed people would accept from her; they didn’t want her to be the villain, despite Lohan reportedly responding very strongly to that role. Instead, it went to McAdams, who is magnificent as the spiteful Queen Bee, but who’d notably play the good girl/romantic lead more often afterwards in the sickly/swoony/delete where appropriate “The Notebook,” “Wedding Crashers,” “The Family Stone,” etc., before becoming the versatile and intelligent presence we know her as today.
But of its actors, this film is always going to be most associated with Lohan, and as probably her best ever role (we would have thought she’d have had a career much more like McAdams’ if you’d asked us back then) it does now feel like a time capsule snapshot of the promise and talent that she once had. She really is extremely good as Cady and sells her “trip to the dark side” arc perfectly, so it's ironic and not a little saddening that the following years have seen her plot the opposite trajectory to her character’s, and become a lot more, well, plastic. In an interview in 2013, Fey remarked that the first thing that comes to mind when she thinks back on “Mean Girls” is the “beautiful, healthy Lindsay Lohan,” and certainly, watching it now is kind of like witnessing an early chapter in a multi-stranded origin story, complete with its own evolving heroes and villains.
2. It’s Not Just Smart, It’s Wise
“All you can do in life is try to solve the problem that’s in front of you.” - Cady
In the post-”30 Rock” word we now inhabit, it’s possible to see quite a few hallmark Fey-isms in the script, as we’ve all become familiar with her style; it’s a skewed and insightful take that doesn’t rely so much on pop culture references (occasional allusions to Danny DeVito aside) but instead taps into a less ephemera, more timeless sense of the ridiculousness of being a teenager. This is fairly revolutionary for a teen comedy in which oftentimes a reference to Jimmy Choo or a certain handbag designer is shorthand for hilarious cultural commentary, but Fey’s depiction of shallowness, while peppered with enough of these namedrops to feel rooted in its time, is somehow much deeper.
But while the snappy, crazily quotable dialogue gets a lot of props ( "Fetch" being the perennial poll-topper, though we’ll admit to personal fondness for the perfume that smells “like a baby prostitute”) the structure of the screenplay deserves praise for how it deviates from the teen comedy template, particularly for how it redeems its villain, and gives everyone a life beyond the obligatory climactic high school social event, in this case the Spring Fling. It’s perhaps the greatest wisdom of Fey’s script that the girls actually do change, they don’t simply get rewarded or get punished—basically, they grow up a bit. Where so many high school comedies pander to the rather hormonal idea that what happens to you at 16 is the most crucial, dramatic and desperately important thing in the world, the ultimate moral of “Mean Girls” is simply: this too shall pass. Of course it’s a perspective that is really only available to those outside that age, and as Fey herself noted, only half joking, “Adults find it funny. They are the ones who are laughing … Young girls watch it like a reality show.”