In almost every teen movie these days, there's a phalanx of warrior babes who march down the hallways of their high school like an occupying army. (I just mentioned one in last week's review of 13 Going on 30.) Popular in the sense that everybody else is afraid not to like them, these ruthless bitches are always the villain of the piece, clearing away all obstacles to their coronation on prom night. And quite frankly, they've become something of a bore. Which is why I held out hope for Mean Girls, the title of which suggests it will tackle the subject head-on, get to the bottom of this sociological phenomenon. It's even based on a pop-sociology book, Rosalind Wiseman's Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends and Other Realities of Adolescence. With such a pedigree, how could it go wrong?
Like Margaret Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa, Wiseman's book examines the rituals of tribal life, but mostly it delineates the social hierarchies that inevitably form when girls are kept in tightly closed spaces. And one can imagine a movie that gave us a clear-eyed view of a world we thought we knew. Instead, Mean Girls gives us the same old cockeyed view. It's as conventional, in its own way, as the beach-party movies were 40 years ago. Lindsay Lohan plays a 16-year-old who grew up in Africa and now must adjust to the urban jungle of Chicago's North Shore High School, where the cafeteria is laid out like a map of the Balkans: JV Jocks at this table, Sexually Active Band Geeks at that table. Because she's teen-magazine cute, Cady is soon offered membership in the Plastics, a lacquered triad that rules the school with a combination of looks, clothes and sheer determination. But then she makes the mistake of expressing interest in the ex-boyfriend of a Plastic. That, of course, means war.
Never one to shun a catfight, I enjoyed the scenes where Cady and Regina -- the hardest Plastic of them all, played by Rachel McAdams -- sharpen their nails and go to work on each other. But this stuff's been done before, often better. (See Heathers.) And there isn't the kind of well-rounded portrayal of high school life that TV programs like "My So-Called Life" and "Freaks and Geeks" have brought us. Hell, there isn't even all that much satire. Written by Tina Fey, who brings a snarky intelligence to her duties as Weekend Update co-anchor on "Saturday Night Live," Mean Girls could stand to be a little meaner. Alas, it succumbs to the helping-your-daughter-survive part of Wiseman's book, culminating with one of those proms where everybody's queen for a day and nobody's heard of Columbine. See Heathers. Then see Carrie.