My new book, The [Un]documented Mark Steyn, is on the New York Times list of the month's ten biggest-selling humor books. Which is pretty funny, because I have no sense of humor. As a Canadian, I only have a sense of humour, and the Times doesn't appear to have a list for that. Anyway, thanks to the Gray Lady, I find myself keeping company I don't usually keep: Lena Dunham, Cary Elwes, Russell Brand, Tina Fey... So I thought for our Saturday movie selection I'd pick a film by one of my fellow New York Times "humorists". I don't believe I've ever seen Lena Dunham in anything other than that Democrat campaign commercial where she loses her virginity to Barack Obama. I quite liked Cary Elwes in Robin Hood: Men In Tights, but I don't believe anybody else did. I couldn't honestly face Russell Brand in Rock Of Ages. I'm fond of Billy Crystal (funny book number 11), but I appear to have knocked him out of the Top Ten so I figure he doesn't really qualify.
That leaves Tina Fey. Don't think I ever watched "30 Rock" or saw her on "Saturday Night Live", but I did rather enjoy her in Mean Girls:
It's hard to satirize high school anymore. .Even if you're an Old Hogwartian or you went to Luton Secondary Modern for Young Jihadists, chances are you've seen at least half-a-dozen American high-school comedies where the teen queen and her posse lope in sensual slo-mo down the corridor flipping their hair. When the parody is instantly recognizable to folks who've never seen the real thing, you know the seam is pretty well tapped out. So congratulations to the makers of Mean Girls (2004) for proving it isn't.
That's quite an accomplishment when you consider who the makers are. The producer is Lorne Michaels, head honcho of TV's "Saturday Night Live" franchise: Given his track record as a producer of loud, dumb, crass feature films, Michaels can be proud to have made one movie he doesn't need to be totally ashamed of. The script is by fellow SNL-er Tina Fey, who also plays the math teacher Miss Norbury. The director is Mark S Waters, who does a competent enough job that nevertheless scrambles to keep up with Miss Fey's peppy screenplay.
Mean Girls opens on Cady Heron's first day at North Shore High, which happens to be her first day at any school ever. Her parents are anthropologists and hitherto she's been educated by them on location in Africa. Now at the age of 16 she's plunged into the jungle of an Illinois suburban high school. We and she are introduced to North Shore in anthropological terms, thanks to a tart Goth-esque girl bearing the ironic appellation of "Janis Ian" (Miss Ian was a one-hit singer-songwriter back in the Seventies whose gloomy anthem of adolescent girlhood, "At Seventeen", is briefly heard in the movie). Janis checks off the long list of school cliques as the camera swoops from table to table across the cafeteria: "Asian Nerds... Unfriendly Black Hotties... Girls Who Eat Their Feelings..." Etc.
Having just landed from Africa, Cady is unfamiliar with these strange exotic tribes. When the name "Ashton Kutcher" is mentioned, Cady says,"Is that a band?" Cady is played by Lindsay Lohan, fresh from Freaky Friday, in which she played a hip young thing who wakes up in a 40-year-old's body. Ashton Kutcher knows how that feels: in 2004, he was a hip young thing then dating Demi Moore. But one enjoyable aspect of the film is that, aside from the Ashton aside, it's not dependent on pop cult references and brand name checks. Instead, it mimics the obsessions with language and style and fashion, but creates a goofy world of its own. "That is so fetch!" squeals Gretchen, one of "the Plastics", the most exclusive clique of all.
"What does 'fetch' mean?" asks Regina.
"It's, like, slang from England," says Gretchen. A couple of days later, she says again that something is "totally fetch", but Regina, the literally named queen bee, tells her to cut it out, "fetch" is never going to catch on. Although it did, in a kind of labored faux-ironic way, after the movie came out. Nevertheless, it gets the goofily arbitrary quality of high-school lingo. Another line I like is a comment on Regina that's bitchy but surreal: "I have this theory that if you cut all her hair off she'd look like a British man..." I don't know how many Illinois high-schoolers would say such a thing, but I think the tone of Miss Fey's dialogue - a kind of know-nothing knowingness - is spot on.
Although she's initially befriended only by Janis and a large boy who's "almost too gay to function", Cady finds herself taken up by Regina, Gretchen and Karen and invited to join the Plastics. She does so because Janis is plotting Regina's downfall and wants a spy on the inside. But once Cady's trapped with the predatory Plastics a touch of Stockholm Syndrome sets in. Her homespun ways and baggy outfits from the veldt give way to wiggly walks and foxy breast-squishing pink tops. In The New Yorker, my old friend Anthony Lane observed, "I would believe this more if the film hadn't already spent half an hour showing us a Cady who seemed smart and skeptical enough to resist such lures." I think he's missing something. Plunked down from her African adventures, Cady doesn't yet know who she is in American adolescent terms: she quite likes Janis and she quite likes the math geeks, but at that age who wouldn't pass up a chance to be in with the innest of the in-crowd?
Nonetheless, she and Janis set to work sabotaging Regina. It's tough going. During gym, they cut two circles in the chest of her sweater, but she shrugs, puts it on, and within a couple of days all the girls are walking around with similar holes. Unlike the mega-bitch caricatures of most teen movies, Regina and co, within their blinkered world, are rather sweetly endearing. And so Cady gradually becomes torn between the fun she's having with the girls and the fact that she's talked Regina into shoveling down weight-loss bars that in fact increase your weight.
At this point, the film lurches into a third act of big life lessons that has a faintly obligatory and unconvincing air about it. But even then there are good moments and sharp lines: you can easily enjoy Mean Girls as a kind of revue of hit-and-miss sketches from high-school life with the loosest of plots draped around them. The moon-faced Miss Lohan holds the whole thing together with a confident understatement that suggests a much wider range than, say, Reese Witherspoon. Back then, I thought she had a grand career ahead of her. Alas, it proved to be her finest hour.
~Don't forget our bonus Mark at the Movies feature for this week: Jack Nicholson's Halloween horror Wolf.
~As mentioned above, Tina Fey is currently holding Mark back on the New York Times bestsellers. If you'd like to help even up the score, The [Un]documented Mark Steyn is now available from all major US retailers, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million, and all major Canadian ones, too, including Indigo-Chapters, Amazon and McNally-Robinson. It's also in eBook - via Kindle, Kobo, Nook and iBooks. And, wherever you are on the planet, we're happy to ship you a personally autographed copy direct from the SteynOnline bookstore.