Fans who found teen star Lindsay Lohan’s last outing, “Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen,” a little toothless may find the bite of “Mean Girls” more to their taste. Penned by “Saturday Night Live” writer/performer Tina Fey, this sassy if wildly uneven comedy navigates the treacherous high school jungle that separates cool cliques from wannabes, wading through some nasty behavior before delivering its moral message. Reteaming of Lohan with her “Freaky Friday” director Mark Waters doesn’t conjure the same antic spirit but has enough irreverent spark to connect with the female-teen target demographic and perhaps beyond.
The model here clearly is “Clueless” — still the high water mark for post-John Hughes high school comedies — with a nod to “Heathers.” But the result feels perhaps closest to 1999 Drew Barrymore vehicle “Never Been Kissed,” both in the awkwardness of its plotting and in the basic thread of an unhip girl going undercover to achieve popularity, hurting her friends in the process and then emerging from hiding to dole out humanity lessons.
Witty setup skips over the early life of Cady Heron (Lohan), who’s been home-schooled through childhood by her zoologist parents in Africa and is experiencing her first day of real school at age 16. Constantly returning to the animal kingdom as her frame of reference, Cady soon gets a sense of the complex subculture network of a Midwestern public high school.
Desperate for friends, she hooks up with outsider freaks Janis (Lizzy Caplan), a cynical punk, and Damian (Daniel Franzese), who’s “almost too gay to function.” Determinedly aloof from the fray, the duo warns Cady to steer clear of The Plastics, an evil trio of Barbie dolls led by the school Queen Bee, Regina (Rachel McAdams). But when Regina and her vacuous handmaidens Gretchen (Lacey Chabert) and Karen (Amanda Seyfried) decide — initially for sport — to admit Cady to their circle, she gets caught in the vicious game-playing of “Girl World.”
When Cady reveals she has a crush on resident hunk Aaron (Jonathan Bennett), Regina’s treacherous nature emerges. This sets Cady off on a retaliation sabotage plan to strip the queen of her crown. Bouncing between her true friends Janis and Damian and the faux gal pals she attempts to bring down, Cady shimmies up the popularity ladder, but gets so giddy with the thrill of her sudden cool status that she momentarily loses sight of her real self. The fallout brings out the beast in the entire school population.
Based on Rosalind Wiseman’s non-fiction book “Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends and Other Realities of Adolescence,” the film amusingly delineates the minefield environment and ruthless caste system of high school. Fey succeeds in fleshing out the study of adolescent social dynamics into a comedy whose characters are both sufficiently stereotypical to be recognizable yet have enough fresh kinks to make them fun.
The “SNL” fixture’s scripting hand brings significant gains through her facility with wicked barbs and clever dialogue and her propensity for far more edgy humor than is usually found in this type of material. But Fey’s inexperience with extended narrative shows in the messy structure, the inconsistent grasp of Cady’s shifts between camps, an occasional disregard for logic and a general lack of clean lines, especially in the chaotic stretch after the girls’ duplicity is exposed to the school.
Waters, who showed an affection for cruel comedy in his debut “The House of Yes,” clearly relishes the bitchy banter and fierce one-upmanship of the girls. And while the film’s erratic engine often runs low on steam after an effervescent start, the director, writer and cast give even the most reprehensible of the characters enough heart and vulnerability to keep the audience invested in them.
As she did in “Freaky Friday,” Lohan displays plenty of charm, verve and deft comic timing as she switches between innocence and craftiness. The actress has a confidence, strength of character and unforced feistiness that make her an empowering mascot for young girls. McAdams, Chabert and Seyfried are funny as spectacularly groomed, self-absorbed dolts, while Caplan and Franzese score all the best lines and deliver them with panache.
In her first feature role, Fey has some winning moments as a math teacher trying to keep Cady on the right path. Pic was produced by “SNL” creator Lorne Michaels and includes other alumni from the show in its cast, among them Tim Meadows as the school principal, Amy Poehler as Regina’s trussed-up airhead mother and Ana Gasteyer as Cady’s more down-to-earth mom.
Pic has the standard glossy visual energy of good teen pics plus plenty of snappy wardrobe and a song collection that sets the tone of girl-on-girl warfare with a cover of Blondie’s “Rip Her to Shreds.” Also featured is teen-femme angst anthem “At Seventeen” by Janis Ian, the name given to Caplan’s character. Rolfe Kent’s African-themed score plays up the animal kingdom parallel.