Review: Mean Girls

Mean Girls (2004)
Lindsay Lohan, Rachel McAdams, Amanda Seyfried, Tina Fey, Tim Meadows, Amy Poehler, Lizzy Caplan. Directed by Mark Waters; written by Tina Fey.

mean_girls_2It’s easy to forget what a bright talent Linsday Lohan was in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Mean Girls is a great reminder. It makes me want to see her in other films I’ve missed.

Lohan plays Cady Heron, whose zoologist parents have homeschooled her in Africa before accepting tenure at Northwestern University. At sixteen, Cady experiences school for the first time, and quickly learns that you can’t just sit anywhere you want, in the classroom or in the cafeteria. You can’t just get up to go the bathroom during class—you need the hall pass, and the teacher’s not giving you the hall pass because students can’t be trusted. And no matter how much you love math (or how good you are at it), you can’t join the math team if you don’t want to commit social suicide.

mean_girls_1She quickly befriends Janis and Damien, two fringe-dwelling artistic types who help her make some sense of this crazy new terrain, but because she’s pretty, she’s also adopted by the Plastics, three beautiful young women whom everyone hates and envies. She has very little in common with the Plastics, whose leader, Regina George, sets all the school’s fashion trends without trying, but Janis and Damien encourage her to accept Regina’s invitation to join, acting as kind of a spy.

mean_girls_3Things quickly get a little crazy, and while Cady seems ill equipped to deal with some of the choices confronting her, it’s clear she’s smart enough to figure most of them out, and this is one of the things that makes me like this picture. When she does stupid things to get the attention of the handsome senior who sits in front of her in calculus, or when she’s caught saying unkind things behind someone’s back, she doesn’t look around for someone to blame. Although she can be slow to take responsibility herself, she eventually owns up for everything without ever pointing at others.

Mean Girls has a few stupid, goofy moments I’m mostly willing to overlook, because it’s a fun, smart, well-directed, well-acted film with a lot for high-schoolers to love. Rachel McAdams, Lizzy Caplan, and (especially) Amanda Seyfried are luminous in their shiny, pink vinyl way, and the school’s grownups are (mostly) well represented, particularly Tim Meadows as the principal and Tina Fey as the math teacher. There’s a really bad touchy-feely moment at the end I hate, but I expect young viewers will respond positively to it. I would like to have shown this to my students in class so we could unpack it together.

I’ve seen it three times now, and it’s a very re-watchable movie, a good candidate for a purchase.


PS: If you see it on a DVD containing special features, I recommend the featurettes, especially the one about costuming. The commentary (with Tina Fey, director Mark Waters, and producer Lorne Michaels) isn’t especially illuminating, but parts of it are enjoyable.

Review: Muppets Most Wanted

Muppets Most Wanted (2015)
The usual Muppets with Ricky Gervais and Tina Fey.  Directed by James Bobin.

We’re doing a sequel! That’s what we do in Hollywood
And everybody knows that the sequel’s never quite as good!

We’re doing a sequel! How hard can it be?
We can’t do any worse than Godfather Three!”

muppetsClearly, I am going to have to revisit The Muppets, the much-heralded Muppetational return to the big screen that I only felt so-so about, because Muppets Most Wanted made me feel all the things I hoped to feel in that film, but did not.  This is a Muppets movie through and through, one to give every fan hope for a potentially limitless future in these post-Henson, post-Oz years.  Everything is here: cameos galore, sight gags, tributes to classic films, stupid puns, awesome puns, new Muppets, old Muppets, huge musical numbers, memorable songs, and massive self-awareness.

The film picks up right where The Muppets left off, with Kermit, Piggy, Scooter, Fozzie, and Gonzo wondering what they should do next.  The answer, of course, is a sequel, and they immediately launch into a new song, “We’re Doing a Sequel,” with help from Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga.  And the Muppetness just keeps going.  The company meets with its new agent, Ricky Gervais as Dominic Badguy (“It’s pronounced bah-jee.  It’s French”), who promises sold-out houses in all the major cities in Europe.  Although Kermit is reluctant to commit when the Muppets have been out of practice for so long, his friends see dollar signs and adventure, so he goes along with Dominic’s plan.

mostKermit bears an uncanny resemblance to the world’s most-wanted international criminal, and a mistaken identity situation (an old Muppets standby!) lands Kermit in a Russian gulag (administered by Tina Fey wonderfully affecting the worst Russian accent in movie history) while his doppelgänger disguises himself as Kermit, assuming an uncharacteristic hands-off management style his friends welcome, even while they’re puzzled by it.

I only have a couple of quibbles with this film.  First, there’s not enough Kermit, because of that mistaken identity situation.  The bulk of the action, by necessity, must follow the Muppets with their fake leader, which means that even Kermit’s scenes in the gulag are less than satisfying, because of course Kermit is at his best when he’s with his friends.  Also, there’s really not enough of the old Muppets (although there is a surprising vocal solo line from Lou Zealand), something the film is aware of and even comments on.  That’s pretty funny, but it doesn’t fix the problem.  With all the exploding, they couldn’t find a quick line for Crazy Harry?

wantedThe songs are somewhat less than awesome, and while my expectations are unreasonably high, that bar was set by the Muppets themselves–where is there a less-than-awesome song in The Muppet Movie?  The exception is Miss Piggy’s “Something So Right,” with an assist by Celine Dion and solo lines by most of the Electric Mayhem.  That one is unusually pretty for a Piggy song, and easily the soundtrack’s highlight. 

The film does almost everything else wonderfully, including a Muppet Show opening in Spanish.  If that doesn’t bring a wistful tear to your eye and a warm laugh, I question your American-ness, sir or ma’am.  And there is a reflective moment when Kermit, who has always hinted at a deep-rooted sadness and longing beneath his layer of green optimism (it’s what makes him so wonderful, that depth of character that Mickey Mouse and his friends never seem to pull off), expresses hurt and disappointment when he realizes his friends didn’t notice he was missing for so long.  Oh, Kermit.  How do you keep forgiving us?

Honestly, I can’t think of a recent movie that takes me so effectively to my childhood, that hits all the buttons exactly in the right way.  This is what we call the Muppet Show.


Review: Sisters

Sisters (2015)
Tina Fey, Amy Poehler.  Directed by Jason Moore.  Written by Paula Pell.

siI’ll pretty much take a look at anything Tina Fey and Amy Poehler do together, and they are the main draw in Sisters.  The story is weak from its premise to its execution, but Fey and Poehler bring all their silliness, smarts, and camaraderie, and that’s pretty much all they need.  Letting them do their thing is good enough to guarantee that the worst a film can be is mediocre.

stersThis film is not the worst it could be.  There are some pretty good laughs amid cheap plot devices (can we please declare a moratorium on adults performing some dance routine they worked out when they were kids?), such as a really funny exchange between Poehler and a Korean manicurist where each has an impossible time pronouncing the other’s names.  Still, poignant moments that are supposed to tie together scenes of crazy partying just aren’t satisfying, partly because the film sleepwalks its way through an unimaginative, restricting story.

Fey and Poehler play middle-aged sisters returning to their childhood home to remove their belongings before their parents sell the house.  Poehler’s life is full of charity and good deeds, but her lifelong good-girl-ness hasn’t translated well to post-divorce life, and she’s feeling the absence of romance, even if she won’t admit it.  Fey is a single mom, ever the irresponsible hedonist who can’t hang onto jobs as a stylist.  Her adult daughter is so tired of her flakiness that she refuses to live in Fey’s apartment.  With prospects for both sisters looking kind of bleak, the last blast in their parents’ house seems like a desperate effort to relive days then each had more to look forward to than to look back upon, and their high-school classmate guests seem to be equally in need of such a reunion.

You can pretty much figure out the rest, and if you can’t, please see this movie.  If you can, you should probably skip it unless, like me, you find the prospect of ninety minutes of Fey and Poehler, in even a yawner of a movie, irresistible.