Teen Spleen 

Talking smack wreaks high school havoc in Mean Girls.

One thing few may mention about Mean Girls is that it could have been unrelentingly terrible. It isn't -- it's actually pretty fabulous on its own terms -- but consider: a rush-job comedy (hastily lensed a few months ago), constructed around a high-concept title with built-in ka-ching and endless potential as talk-show fodder. Produced by Lorne Michaels, Saturday Night Live's genius-madman whose recent offerings nonetheless include A Night at the Roxbury and The Ladies' Man. Based on a nonfiction book (Rosalind Wiseman's Queen Bees and Wannabes) that concerns ... ooh, girls sassing each other. Plus the whole project lurched off the blocks already tagged as Heathers-lite.

Well, miracles occasionally happen. With a wink at John Hughes and a Band-Aid for Columbine, Mean Girls bellyflops into the increasingly complicated American high school experience with a healthy reservoir of wit. Credit screenwriter and comedienne extraordinaire Tina Fey (SNL, Second City) as well as director Mark Waters (the fun Freaky Friday remake, The House of Yes) for festooning their teen flick with strings of knowing giggles for the over-eighteen crowd.

Our perky protagonist is Cady (Freaky Friday's Lindsay Lohan, nicely restrained), who was raised and home-schooled in Africa by her adventurous parents until fate and failing funds adjusted the missionaries' position to an impossibly congenial suburbia the movie claims is in Illinois. A teen tabula rasa -- or so it would seem -- Cady (pronounced "Katie," she reminds everyone) enters North Shore High School blissfully unaware of cliques, including cool Asians, dork Asians, art fags, jocks, and, of course, Heathers ... er ... Plastics -- here they're called the Plastics!

That's right -- there's a trio of eponymous antisocial young ladies here, who toe the line of teen girl plausibility by wearing jeans only once a week. They quickly become fascinated by the "new meat" at school who hasn't claimed a clique. Brusque, blonde Regina (Rachel McAdams) welcomes Cady to join them at their table in that occupied zone, the cafeteria, and before long they're sniffing one another out. Along with dippy Karen (newcomer Amanda Seyfried), who claims meteorological insight based on the whims of her boobs, and dippier Gretchen (Party of Five's Lacey Chabert), who gloats over her family's fortune built upon toaster strudels, the girlie gang hits -- what else? -- the mall.

Given the African sub-theme, we get an amusing faux-tribal score from Rolfe Kent and images of teen "animals" around the "watering hole" that is the mall's fountain, revealing, like, duh, that it's a jungle out there. Deep in the bush of the 'burbs, Cady swiftly finds her loyalties tested between the Plastics and her artsy friends, Janis (Lizzy Caplan) and Damian (Daniel Franzese), the latter being defined as "so gay he can barely function." Then there's boy-toy Aaron (Jonathan Bennett) offering to tutor the severely crushing Cady in math. She feigns ignorance to be near him, even though, of course, all those years of home-schooling in grass huts have made her an ace with equations that would stump Stephen Hawking.

Also starring as the adorably daffy Ms. Norbury, screenwriter Fey keeps tongue in cheek for adults involved, pushing Cady to join the geeky "Mathletes" until she inadvertently finds herself weirdly incriminated ... as a pusher. Yes, under the watchful yet completely laissez-faire eye of Regina's ditzy mother (Amy Poehler, channeling Beverly D'Angelo), the Plastics have created an evil "Burn Book." Within said tome lie secrets, lies, and random insults adversely affecting everyone at school, including the faculty. Apart from exposing some pedophilia, the book starts ruining mostly innocent lives in a chaotic chain reaction, and principal Duvall (Tim Meadows, hilariously deadpan) puts out an APB on the culprit(s). We in turn get some very funny mockery of cheesy moralizing.

Admittedly, some of the gags here feel threadbare, such as setting up and paying off a pointless fart "subplot," or -- haw-haw-haw! -- the awesome challenge of making fun of Bible-thumpin' gun-nut rednecks. The hit-by-a-bus shocker lifted wholesale from Final Destination 2 also didn't need repeating here. But most of the chuckles score. The rapped line, "I'll make love to your woman on the kitchen floor," from a race-obsessed Indian kid in a Christmas pageant, earns points for creativity. Regina's mom's obliviousness concerning her rat-dog gnawing her surgically enhanced nipple is an undeniably unique comic visual. And you gotta love a film that poses the vital question: "Is butter a carb?"

Quirky dialogue is definitely Fey's strong suit, and while her candor about peeing and tampons doesn't match the Shakespearean heights of pithy vulgarity from Heathers, doing anything gently with a chainsaw doesn't seem to be her goal anyway. Rather, she and Waters give us a lead teen girl with an actual full character arc -- naïveté to bitchiness to balance -- muddling through a high school that's so funny it's almost real. What could have withered into a feature-length detention ends up feeling like a homecoming ball.


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