Can a movie musical based on a Broadway musical based on a film comedy that in turn was based on a parenting book be any good? Sure — if only because the writer-producer Tina Fey and the producer Lorne Michaels have made sure that little has changed in their money-printing property since the first movie hit theaters in 2004. Few stories, it turns out, are as comically and horrifyingly reliable as those set in high school; few villains are as dependably hissable as a desirable young woman with an ostensibly cold heart.
In keeping with this material’s cheerfully derivative history it seems right to start with the New York Times film critic Elvis Mitchell, who called the original film — directed by Mark Waters and starring a preternaturally self-assured Lindsay Lohan — “tart and often charming.” Fast forward to 2018 when the paper’s former theater critic Ben Brantley described the Broadway musical as “likable but seriously over-padded.” For its part, the new “Mean Girls” lands somewhere between these two takes. It’s not especially tart and is undeniably over-padded, but its charms and ingratiating likability remain intact.
Once again, the story — by Fey, who also wrote the first movie and the Broadway show — drops Cady (a sweet Angourie Rice), a bright home-schooled teen fresh from Kenya, into a high-school hellscape. There, she meets nerds and jocks, alphas and betas, and attracts the notice of the queen bee, the aptly named Regina (Reneé Rapp, who played the role on Broadway). Flanked by her vassals, Karen (Avantika) and Gretchen (Bebe Wood), Regina reigns supreme at school where, as the student body’s most attentively studied subject, she is feared, desired and loathed, at times simultaneously.
As in the original film, the latest Cady is a quick study and soon learns her new habitat’s rules on her way to self-actualization and group acceptance. She befriends a pair of too-cool-for-school art kids, Janis and Damian — the tag-teaming scene-stealers Auli’i Cravalho and Jaquel Spivey — who encourage her to insinuate herself into Regina’s clique, a.k.a. the Plastics, to learn its secrets. Cady does and the usual complications ensue, including a chaste romance with Regina’s ex, Aaron (Christopher Briney), a heartthrob with floppy hair. Betrayal, comeuppance, repentance and triumph follow.
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