I knew I loved Tina Fey when I saw her do a "Weekend Update" riff on the subject of Hugh Hefner's six (or was it seven?) girlfriends. As she deconstructed each bimbette with salvos of withering sarcasm, even the self-effacing Fey may not have grasped the jubilant subtext that was making the bit work: "I'm sexier than you. So there."
That same spectacle -- of a smart, funny woman triumphing over a superficial world -- informs "Mean Girls," Fey's entry in the teen-flick sweepstakes. In adapting Rosalind Wiseman's "Queen Bees and Wannabes," a parents' guide to the wilderness of girlhood, writer/ performer Fey has found an ideal outlet for her sociologically minded satire. Though dramatically inconsistent, the movie clearly grasps the subtle nuances of the pubescent pecking order. Plus, it's funny -- more often than not, anyway.
You can see a lot of Fey in heroine Cady Heron (Lindsay Lohan of "Freaky Friday"), the home-schooled daughter of research zoologists more attuned to the customs of Africa than America. Upon setting foot in a stateside public school for the first time in her life, Cady swiftly stumbles into a running clash between competing factions. On one side are the Plastics, a trio of haughty cell-phone junkies who will be happy to befriend Cady if she conforms to their every notion of dress and conduct; in the opposite corner are Damian (Daniel Franzese) and -- I kid you not -- Janis Ian (Lizzy Caplan), a pair of outcasts with a score to settle. At their urging, the guileless Cady agrees to go along with the Plastics' initiation, using her access to their inner circle to subvert their school's entire power structure.
Were this almost anyone else's movie, the story wouldn't go much further: Cady and her cool-jerk friends would publicly humiliate the Plastics, securing vindication for the disenfranchised element of the student body. But Fey -- whose own life is a tribute to the resiliency of the nerdy duckling -- wants to demonstrate how the winners and losers of our schools (and, by extension, our none-too-different adult culture) are just pawns of larger sociological forces. So of course Cady's undercover mission as a Plastic begins to pollute her untested niceness. As in all good teen movies, the spirit of acceptance even extends to the faculty. Meet Ms. Norbury (Fey herself), a teacher eager to shape the girls' ideas of womanhood but comically world-weary enough to perceive the generational chasm she has to cross first.
The sympathetic quality of Fey's script puts her in the same ballpark with the great Amy Heckerling ("Fast Times at Ridgemont High," "Clueless"); unlike Heckerling, though, she hasn't figured out how to tie up her narrative in a way that rejects cruelty while still satisfying the audience's need for some sort of third-act thrill. Fey opts for touchy-feely conflict resolution, and it stops the movie dead. I know she's determined to love all of these girls on some level, but the movie would have ended better had she reminded herself that a few of them are bound to date Hugh Hefner one day.