Bebe Wood, Reneé Rapp, and Avantika in Mean Girls


After watching Mean Girls this past weekend, I did something that I hadn't done in almost two decades: I watched Mean Girls.

A word to the confused. That first mention of Mean Girls refers to the new screen-musical version directed, in their feature debut, by Samantha Jayne and Arturo Perez Jr. The second, it should go without saying, is director Mark Waters' 2004 classic of high-school clique-dom that provided Lindsay Lohan with one of her best roles and introduced many audiences to the somehow-still-expanding charms of Rachel McAdams. I loved Waters' film at the time; my initial reviewed stated that “it might just be the best teen comedy the movies have given us in 15 years.” Yet despite owning its DVD, I can't honestly say that I ever gave Mean Girls a third viewing, if I even gave it a second. Well, that changed yesterday, and wow – if you liked the 2004 version, you almost can't help but enjoy this latest one, because it's the same movie, albeit with songs.

To be sure, there are other distinctions, too. This being 2024, smartphones and social-media feeds are all over the place; jokes made at the expense of characters' ethnicity and sexual identity have been mostly jettisoned, even though fat-shaming is still very much a thing; and despite both films boasting PG-13 ratings, the language has been cleaned up a lot. (I had forgotten, while wincing through the Waters, just how ubiquitous the word “retarded” was in the mid-'00s.) Still, after removing my DVD from its dust-covered box, I was frankly astounded by how many scenes in the new Mean Girls replicated their forebears nearly word for word, and sometimes even shot for shot. In a particularly meta touch, the Halloween horror flick that our heroine's besties were watching in '04 is the exact same horror flick they're watching in '24. They're even watching the same scene. Jayne's and Perez's outing isn't just a case, as the recent The Color Purple is, of a musical that very much resembles its non-musical predecessor. This is more like what Gus Van Sant was up to when he made 1998's Psycho.

Angourie Rice in Mean Girls

Leave it to that comic genius Tina Fey to make all this ticklish rather than tired. Fey, of course, wrote the original Mean Girls script, as well as this new one and the book for its 2017 stage rendition, and she clearly knows better than to mess too much with a good thing. (She also reprises her role as math teacher Mrs. Norbery, and speaking of being left alone: How does Fey miraculously look like she stepped into the '24 movie five minutes after the '04?) The narrative, almost Jane Austen-esque in structure, remains the same, with the formerly home-schooled, 16-year-old Cady (Angourie Rice) attending her first public school, slipping in with a trio of popular sharks known as the Plastics, and eventually morphing into one herself. The details haven't changed much, either. Cady still has two comfortable-outcast pals in Janis (Auli'i Cravalho) and Damian (Jaquel Spivey). There's still the cute crush Aaron Samuels (Christopher Briney), the Mathletes team led by a sweetly obnoxious Kevin G. (Mahi Alam), and the trying-way-too-hard-to-be-cool mom Mrs. George (Busy Phillips, adequately substituting for Amy Poehler). There's still a cruel “burn book” and an awkward Christmas pageant and explosively caloric snack bars and a wayward school bus. And blessedly, there's the Plastics' self-appointed dictator Regina (Reneé Rapp) and her acolytes Gretchen (Bebe Wood) and Karen (Avantika), who manage to keep memories of McAdams, Lacey Chabert, and Amanda Seyfried largely at bay.

In other words, this Mean Girls really needs its songs, because beyond the casting swaps, you'd otherwise be hard-pressed to tell the difference between versions '04 and '24. Sadly, the show tunes here aren't great, although they're certainly not bad. Composer Jeff Richmond (Fey's husband) and lyricist Nell Benjamin do a decent job of capturing the material's pep and snark, and while the pleasantly forgettable numbers don't do much to advance the plot (except in the “A Cautionary Tale” opener), they're more successful in revealing character, especially when Regina tears into her solos and Janis unleashes her 11-o'clock power anthem “I'd Rather Be Me.” What makes the songs absolutely work in this film's context, however, is the energetic imagination behind Jayne's and Perez's staging of them.

Unlike the recent Color Purple, which never finds a cohesive tone for the musical interruptions, Jayne and Perez seem to know precisely how each song here should be delivered: with as much showy, in-your-face bravura as possible. Even when numbers are performed “realistically,” as in Cady's introduction and Gretchen's “What's Wrong with Me?” lament, Mean Girls' directors augment the vocal deliveries with bubbly visual flourishes; they always give you something alluringly off-kilter to look at while you're listening. And some of their production numbers are knockouts. “A Cautionary Tale” whisks us from a smartphone recording to a physical garage to the plains of Kenya to Chicago in practically less time that it took to type that. “Apex Predator,” in a nod to the 2004 film's mall-fountain fantasy sequence, re-imagines high-schoolers as voracious wild animals. “Revenge Party” exudes a topsy-turvy, expressionist vibe suggesting one of Euphoria's nastier freakouts. (In general, the young background talents look like they're having an utter blast performing Kyle Hanagami's spirited choreography.) From what I understand, not having seen Mean Girls on stage, a significant number of tunes have been cut for the movie. Yet Jayne and Perez do a wonderful job of showcasing the ones that remain, and while you may not leave the auditorium humming any of the tunes, their presentation will likely stick with you.

Angourie Rice, Bebe Wood, and Avantika in Mean Girls

So will, I'm guessing, the unmitigated cheekiness of the non-musical bits. It wasn't until my reacquaintance with the '04 release that I discovered just how many fan-centric callbacks Fey included in her update, from specific lines (“She doesn't even go here!”) to props (the candy cane-grams) to the answering of decades-long questions. (If you wondered whether there was anything behind the strangely familiar relationship between Mrs. Norbury and Principal Duvall, with Fey's SNL co-star Tim Meadows reprising his role as the latter, this film has your answer.) Yet nothing here is held too sacred that it can't be goofed on – even the movie's very existence, as when one of the on-screen musicians apologizes to another “for saying that you were dragging during 'Revenge Party.'” This Mean Girls knows it's a musical. Better yet, it knows it's a movie musical based on a stage musical based on a movie based on a book (Rosaline Wiseman's Queen Bees & Wannabes), and delivers great fun in acknowledging and playing with every aspect of that awareness. (Regina portrayer Rapp also played the role on Broadway, and one of the 2004 film's young stars makes a not-insignificant cameo here, though I won't spoil which one.)

All told, this adaptation is a total kick, and if the sweet, solid-enough Rice can't compete with Lohan in the charisma department, the supporting bananas tend to pop beautifully – although Rapp doesn't pop so much as detonate, and the hardworking, perhaps too-hardworking, Avantika doesn't approach the serene daffiness of Amanda Seyfried. (To her credit, she also appears to know not to bother trying.) The 2004 Mean Girls remains the much-better film, and who could really be surprised by that? This new one still succeeds in saluting its predecessor to an almost obsessive degree while demonstrating a quirky, adventurous, frequently hilarious personality all its own, and I'm betting it won't be another 20 years before I feel compelled to watch it again.

Jeffrey Wright in American Fiction


Jeffrey Wright, as an actor, isn't always good. He's always sensational, and had writer/director Cord Jefferson given us nothing in his feature debut American Fiction beyond a two-hour showcase for its Tony-winning, Emmy-winning, yet still-underappreciated star, that would've been enough. The man is in every scene here, which means we're basically getting as much Wright in this one movie as we usually get in any 10 movies wise enough to cast him. Happily, however, Jefferson's alternately biting and warm dramatic comedy would no doubt be worth watching even if headlined by a significantly lesser talent … by which I mean anyone who's not Jeffrey Wright.

If you've seen American Fiction's trailers, and they're among the most enticing of any released in the past year, you likely know the film's considerable hook. In this adaptation of Percival Everett's 2001 novel Erasure, Wright plays Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, a middle-aged college professor whose published books – modernized takes on ancient classics – are unfairly ghettoized as “African-American fiction” and don't merit the same praise or bestseller status as the preferred titles that address such “Black subjects” as drugs, crime, and unexpected pregnancy. One night, angry and drunk, Monk hastily types out an intentionally awful “memoir” under the alias Stagg R. Leigh, and sends the clichéd My Pafology manuscript to his agent Arthur (John Ortiz) as a middle finger to the publishing community. Surprise! The publishing community goes nuts for it – The themes! The language! The realness! – and Monk consequently finds himself not only exorbitantly well-paid for his literary abomination, but forced to publicly assume the identity of Leigh, whom awed publishers, and even a hotshot filmmaker, presume is a wanted felon. This is a phenomenal conceit that you can easily imagine being sustained over the course of a full-length film. Despite the tenor of its previews, though, consistent merriment is not what Jefferson has planned for us.

Sterling K. Brown in American Fiction

Don't misunderstand: American Fiction is funny, sometimes devastatingly so. A masterful deadpan comic who rarely gets the opportunity to demonstrate that gift, Wright scores laughs through barely audible growls and the most microscopic shifts in his facial muscles, and the performer's more overt yet still subtle physical comedy when portraying Stagg is the gift that keeps on giving, with the literary snob Monk even more uncomfortable in the ruse than we viewers are. (We, at least, are allowed the release of laughter.) Plus, nearly everything involving the superb Ortiz and My Pafology's oh-so-white fans – among them hearty caricatures portrayed by Adam Brody, Miriam Shor, and Michael Cyril Creighton – is divinely satirical, and I can't recall releasing more gut-busting guffaws at recent movies than the ones accompanying Monk's hasty renaming of his opus and Arthur's ill-considered blowing-my-brains-out gesture.

But amazingly, in a surprise that the trailers (for better or worse) kept a surprise, Jefferson's film isn't really that interested in its high-concept conceit – or rather, not as interested as it is in delivering the kind of no-drugs, no-crime, no-unwanted-pregnancy tale that shouldn't be as uncommon as it currently is. Because whenever American Fiction isn't focused on Monk's literary ruse, which feels like about two-thirds of the time, it's a smart, thoughtful, deeply humane dramedy about a complex, flawed, essentially loving family – something not unlike TV's long-running Parenthood, or This Is Us with significantly fewer tears.

Sterling K. Brown, Jeffrey Wright, and Erika Alexander in American Fiction

None of the subplots here, I'm sure by design, are terribly novel. Monk's Mom (Leslie Uggams) is showing signs of dementia. His sister (Tracee Ellis Ross) is exhausted by acting as her primary caregiver. His recently divorced brother (Sterling K. Brown) is experiencing new life as a gay man. The siblings may have to sell the beach house to pay for Mom's care. The longtime family housekeeper (Myra Lucretia Taylor) is planning to get married. Monk finds a potential romantic interest in the charming public defender (Erika Alexander) across the street. Again, not much in the way of narrative uniqueness. Yet you can easily imagine a completely fair rebuttal to that claim: Why should there be? Why can't Black stories be about, you know, people, and not merely the oppressed, victimized people who – as demonstrated here in a painfully funny and on-the-nose stab at a cable channel's “Black Stories Month” lineup – appear in Precious and Antebellum and New Jack City?

Because both facets of Jefferson's movie, the satiric side and the heartfelt side, are smart, terrifically well-acted, and shrewdly written, just about everything works – with the possible exception of the final 15 minutes, which I'm still wrestling with. What I'm not yet sure of is how well all this works as a whole. Jefferson assuredly proves that he can do broad comedy and intimate drama, yet there's a bit of disconnect every time the movie's disparate moods shift. It may be an unfair comparison, but in James. L Brooks' Terms of Endearment, Shirley MacLaine delivers a high-comic hospital meltdown that doesn't feel divorced from reality; the slapstick and humanism find a way to meet in the middle. And although Jefferson does find ways to blend his movie's separate worlds, principally in an expertly written and performed scene in which Monk meets his literary nemesis (Issa Rae) who gives as good as she gets, American Fiction still feels like two films rather uncomfortably shoehorned into one. It doesn't much matter, though. I was more than delighted to view both of them.

LaKeith Stanfield and RJ Cutler in The Book of Clarence


It's wa-a-ay too early into 2024 to deem any film the “-est” of the year. But I may have to bookmark writer/director Jeymes Samuel's The Book of Clarence for consideration as the weirdest cinematic release of '24, because if American Fiction is like two movies in one, this thing is like a dozen movies in one, and I'm not certain that any of them fully succeed. Yet I'd be lying if I said the resulting mess wasn't fascinating, and if anything we get at the cineplex over the next 11-plus months takes bigger swings than the ones Samuel provides, I won't necessarily want to be on the receiving end of that bat.

With both siblings played by LaKeith Stanfield, our titular, questionable hero is the twin brother of Jesus' apostle Thomas (and yes, the Bible does reference Thomas having a brother – though I'm pretty certain his name wasn't Clarence). After losing a chariot race to Teyana Taylor's Mary Magdelene (!), Clarence and his best pal Elijah (RJ Cyler) need money to pay off a considerable debt to loan shark Jedediah the Terrible (Eric Kofi-Abrefa). They consequently come up with two means of earning the dough: (a) getting Clarence enlisted as Jesus' 13th disciple, and after that plan is laughed off by the actual 12, (b) convincing the Jerusalem citizenry that Clarence is every bit the miracle-working Messiah that Jesus is. If this sounds like something out of Monty Python, principally Life of Brian, you're not wrong. We're treated to hysterical cameos by David Oyelowo as John the Baptist and the peerless Alfre Woodard as the Virgin Mary, and even when the gags don't land, it's at least clear that they are gags. Yet what are we to make of everything that happens after The Book of Clarence's halfway point, when it becomes evident that Samuel isn't (primarily) kidding around anymore? When he presents us with no end of existential turmoil and Stanfield weeping buckets of tears and a crucifixion scene as grotesquely violent – and one seeming to last just as long – as The Passion of the Christ's?

Alfre Woodard and LaKeith Stanfield in The Book of Clarence

I honestly don't know what to make of this thing. It felt a bit like Samuel was luring audiences into a sincere examination of faith with the promise of easy slapstick yuks, and then expecting – hoping? – that they would be happily surprised to instead find trenchant, even aggressively delivered analysis of nonsecular belief. In other words, and not meaning to sound heathenistic: Who the Hell was this movie made for? Anyone expecting laughs will surely be put off by the climactic torture and the ugliness of Mary Magdeline being nearly stoned to death and the lo-o-o-ng scenes of desperate soul-searching. Anyone expecting Passion II will no doubt loathe the constant weed jokes, Clarence's repeated attempts to mimic Jesus “trickery,” and the final shot that provides a definitive light-bulb moment. Also a literal one.

You can't argue, however, that Samuel isn't wholeheartedly Going for It with his Biblical re-imagining/spoof/celebration. The funny moments are legitimately funny, the dramatic ones legitimately wrenching, and the writer/director continually supplies sights that are almost poetic in their intoxicating strangeness: hookah-smoking Israelites floating above the ground when they get high, say, or what results after Pontius Pilate (James McAvoy, oddly resembling Russell Crowe) demands that Clarence, as memorably sung by King Herod in Jesus Christ Superstar, “walk across my swimming pool.” There's much that's good about The Book of Clarence, Samuel's directorial followup to his 2021 Western The Harder They Fall, including the appearances of Omar Sy, Micheal Ward, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, and an initially unrecognizable Benedict Cumberbatch. There's also a lot, even a majority, that's crummy, resulting in what I'd consider about a .400 batting average. That's not terribly impressive. But if he were a major-league baseball player? It's enough to make Samuel a superstar.

Jason Statham in The Beekeeper


Directed by David Ayer, Jason Statham's latest revenge thriller The Beekeeper is stupid as eff, and needed to be about twice as stupid to succeed as the disreputable fun it clearly wants to be. It has, after all, an unmissable premise, because who wouldn't want to see Statham go to town on all those immoral assholes who, from faraway computer terminals, spend their lives tricking senior citizens into Internet schemes and pilfering their life savings? That's the central idea behind the film, and it's an admittedly juicy one. Yet the movie keeps getting in its own way, first by giving no reasonable rationale for its plot-goosing tragedy (why would the Web victim commit suicide when she could've enlisted the aid of her FBI-agent daughter who visits her later that day?), then by never acknowledging the ridiculousness of its geography (this worldwide criminal enterprise apparently housing all of its call centers in the immediate Boston area), and then by having the film's title thematically explained over and over and over again to ensure, I guess, that the four-years-olds at this R-rated endeavor are pummelingly aware of why it's called The Beekeeper. (It has to do with hive mentality, which would've been apparent well before seven or eight monologues.) Sad to say, most of these recitations are delivered by Jeremy Irons, and I can't recall ever before groaning, literally, at nearly everything this Oscar/Emmy/Tony-winning dynamo said on-screen.

But hey, at least we get the pleasure of Irons' paycheck-cashing company, and the other villains are also modestly enjoyable: Josh Hutcherson as a skateboarding, earring-sporting trust-fund tech bro; David Witts as the plot initiator who's like the younger, seedier cousin of Max Greenfield; Taylor James as a heavily accented, heavily tattooed bruiser whose exuded spittle could float the Titanic; and Megan Le as a lunatic assassin in a loud jacket and high heels whom any responsible screenwriter (Kurt Wimmer is the irresponsible one here) would know to keep around for more than just a single scene. Otherwise, it's just more of Statham doing his perma-scowl thing amidst uninspired action choreography, far too much time spent with the semi-comic badinage between Emmy Raver-Lampman's and Bobby Naderi's FBI agents, and a laughable storyline that connects all of the film's dastardly goings-on to the president of the United States yet chickens out on making the commander-in-chief the least bit responsible for the madness. (Also, for those of you wondering if Statham's beekeeper ever uses actuak bees to attack his victims, I've got one monosyllabic answer for you, and it's the opposite of "Yep.") Political thrillers can be fun. Apolitical thrillers, at their lamest, are just The Beekeeper.

Wyatt Russell and Kerry Condon in Night Swim


Due to unforeseen car trauma last weekend, I was forced to turn around en route to my Davenport viewing of Night Swim and allow my vehicle to pass out in the home comfort of Rock Island. After a week, my poor car is still at the shop, and I consequently had to Uber my ass to the cineplex for this weekend's five-fer. (Shout out to drivers James, Justin, Andrew, and Brandon for the exceptional service and awesome conversation!) But I'm awfully glad that I was able to catch up with writer/director Bryce McGuire's Blumhouse horror treat, which turned out to be a hefty amount of unsettling, nerve-shredding fun. And because I was alone in my auditorium during a morning screening at which no one in their right minds should've braved the weather conditions to attend, I felt no compunction about gasping and laughing and exclaiming “Oh shit!” out loud. I kind of wish I was able to do so in a packed auditorium, but these days, as you can hopefully understand, I'll take my pleasures where I can find them.

Night Swim, meanwhile, is a considerable pleasure, due primarily to how intelligently the participants treat its fundamentally dumb set-up. Long story short: It's about a malevolent in-ground swimming pool, and the pool is housed in the suburbs of Minneapolis … which should make it dangerous for swimmers for, what, about three months out of the year? Nevertheless, a family of four led by a major-league baseball star (Wyatt Russell) now suffering from multiple sclerosis and his school-administrator wife (Kerry Condon) now have to contend with a demon in the backyard, and no pool covers or gallons of chlorine will be able to stop it. I joke because it's just so easy with this conceit. Yet the joke doesn't stick, partly because McGuire has the nerve to treat this material seriously; partly because Russell, Condon, and the kids played by Amélie Hoeferle and Gavin Warren do, too; and partly because Night Swim isn't necessarily designed to be another assembly-line product in the admittedly pretty-impressive Blumhouse canon. It's designed as a low-rent, agreeably unpretentious take on The Shining, in which Dad winds up lo-o-oving the pool, and I probably don't need to tell you that there are far shakier horror achievements to crib from.

As is the norm with these things, the extended finale is underwhelming, as is the requisite explanation for the supernatural goings-on, and while I appreciated what McGuire was going for in his film's complicated father/son relationship, it felt like we needed one or two more scenes for that uncomfortable dynamic to fully register. That being said, I had a blast, if a really edgy blast. Although the pool monster's physical appearances are routinely silly, McGuire's clever compositions keep us continually unbalanced regarding where the jump-scares will land even when their timing is predictable, and the writer/director is shrewd enough to know that his horrors shouldn't come only at night; the film's most disturbing (near-)tragedy occurs not only in broad daylight, but with dozens of potential spectators wholly unaware of the crisis. The Banshees of Inisherin Oscar nominee and Better Call Saul castmate Condon, meanwhile, proves exceptionally strong at crafting a suburban mom living with serious doubts about her maternal capabilities, and while he can't quite pull of the Nicholson-ian transformation required of him, Russell is believable and affecting, and positively nails the line “Wee have a pool!” like an eight-year-old thunderstuck by his good fortune. Better fright films than Night Swim will inevitably, hopefully, be released in 2024. It's still worth catching this one. Despite the premise's inherent goofiness, seriously: Take a dip.

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