Not every movie — indeed, almost no movie — was meant to be turned into a musical. But the trend of doing so has become more common over the last two decades, and when you see a movie-to-musical transformation that really works, a surprising alchemy occurs. It can feel as if that story was always made to be told through song and dance; when you think back on the non-musical version, it can now seem like it’s missing something. That’s the sensation I’ve had at movies-turned-Broadway-musicals like “Hairspray,” “School of Rock” (built around Andrew Lloyd Webber’s greatest score in decades), and even “Back to the Future” (a musical I was recently dragged to kicking and screaming, and I wound up loving it).
The same dynamic works, in a clever if less spectacular way, in “Mean Girls,” the movie adaptation of the 2018 Broadway musical version of the classic 2004 screen comedy. Will the new movie replace the original film in anyone’s affections? That might depend on how old you are. (For some, the 2004 version will always be sacred; for others, it’s their mom’s “Mean Girls.”) I’ll just say that after you’ve seen the pop singer Renée Rapp, as the head mean girl Regina (Rapp also played the role on stage), make her grand entrance in a black vinyl bodysuit, singing “My name is Regina George, and I am a massive deal…,” as if she were Anita Ekberg crossed with Mata Hari, the scene carries a jolt, and you may wonder for a moment how Rachel McAdams, in the original film, made the impact she did without that song.
I’m not suggesting that this version is better. Both were written by Tina Fey, who also produced the new movie (along with Lorne Michaels). So you can rest assured that “Mean Girls,” the movie musical, sticks close to the spirit and to the letter of the movie that updated and mythologized the culture of gossip and backstabbing for a new generation.
The new movie nudges the material into our own era in a handful of ways. The clothes worn by Regina and her clique — the babbly insecure Gretchen (Bebe Wood), the dim bulb Karen (Avantika), who practically glows in her idiotic innocence — have a busy postmodern trash chic that makes the miniskirt-and-high-heels look of the original trio look like something from a lost century. The film is laced with social-media montages, there are cameos by Megan Thee Stallion and a certain star I won’t reveal (she plays the Mathletes judge), and there are up-to-the-minute jokes like “If you don’t dress slutty, that is slut-shaming us!” Damian, the florid bohemian outlier who’s regularly mocked as being “too gay to function” (a gag that now risks sounding as dated as those heels), is played by Jacquel Spivey with a knowing verve that smashes any hint of condescension.
Yet the most contempo aspect of the new “Mean Girls” is a quality that one may have mixed feelings about. The film was originally made for streaming (it was set to premiere on Paramount+), but the studio made what I think will prove to be the very smart decision to turn it into a theatrical feature. (Was that decision influenced by the blockbuster success of “Barbie”? I would bet it was. For this is a movie that’s every bit as much about pink and plastic.) “Mean Girls” was directed by Samantha Jayne and Arturo Perez Jr. (it’s their first feature), and working with the cinematographer Bill Kirstein, they’ve staged the film in a gliding, almost frictionless style that often creates the illusion of one long shot doubling back on itself. This is the sort of thing that was once the province of wizards like Spielberg and De Palma; now it’s the snaky lingua franca of music video. It makes the numbers pop (which sounds like a good thing, and is), but it also makes all of them pop in kind of the same way. There’s a heightened-Disney-channel, made-for-streaming kinetic aesthetic to “Mean Girls.” The film, ironically, might have been more electric if it were willing to be a little more stationary.
The story, though, once again catches you up in the comic vision of a teen culture that’s now a conspiracy of vindictive one-upmanship. There have always been mean girls, as well as mean-girl characters in movies, but the John Hughes ’80s were dominated by mean boys (they usually wore letter sweaters), and it wasn’t until “Heathers,” in 1988, that the mean girl stepped into the spotlight as her own sharp-tongued, razor-taloned icon.
It was Tina Fey’s stroke of inspiration to take that evolution to the next level by suggesting that the “mean girl,” rather than just being the be-yotch who rules the high-school cafeteria, now had the potential to be…all of us. Fey’s heroine, Cady Meron, is a nice girl who grew up, home-schooled, in Kenya, and when she first arrives at North Shore High School she doesn’t know bitchery or sarcasm from zebra stripes. (She’s also a brilliant math student, which might be a sly comment on the U.S. public education system.) But she’s lured into Regina’s world, and even when she learns that Regina is a full-on treacherous sociopath, that, ironically, is the moment that Cady loses her own bearings. Her desire for revenge turns her into the very thing she thinks she hates.
Angourie Rice, evoking the young Michelle Williams and the Sarah Michelle Gellar of “Buffy,” makes an ace innocent, drawing us in with her opening number (a new one written for the film), then telegraphing the mixed emotions with which she becomes friends with Regina, who likes to surround herself with beauty, as long as it doesn’t compete with her. The scene where they all gather after school in Regina’s designer bedroom is hilarious, and when Cady starts flirting in math class with Aaron (Christopher Briney), the dreamboat who’s Regina’s ex, we can see where that’s heading. Renée Rapp, with her leonine anger and frowsy voluptuousness, plays Regina as if she were the central figure in “The Real Housewives of High School.” It’s a star-in-the-making performance.
The songs carry you through, with the cross-cutting fireworks of “Revenge Party” being a particular highlight. And the story still crackles, especially when it culminates in the revealing of the Burn Book, Regina’s secret bible of viciousness — a plot twist that’s like “Harriet the Spy” updated to the age of Instagram. As Janis, the pierced art punk (shamed by Regina in middle school for her sexuality) who tries to wrest Cady out of the inferno of popularity, Auli’i Cravalho creates the film’s most authentically gritty everygirl character; she sparks every moment she’s in. Angourie Rice, when she has to turn mean, does it with searing conviction, though the way the transition happens is a bit jarring. At first we think: Is this really her? The answer is: No, it’s not. She’s pretending to be mean because that’s what she thinks she’s supposed to be. But the canniness of “Mean Girls” — in 2004, and it’s still there — is that the film understands that the meanness that can seem like it has taken over American teenage life is, at root, a performance. “Mean Girls” says: To be mean is to be someone other than yourself.