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Girls Gone Mild

“Mean Girls” promises edge but delivers formula.

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It does. It’s worse.

Abetted by director Mark S. Waters (“The House of Yes,” “Freaky Friday”), Fey aspires to the kind of scorched-earth irreverence that made Comedy Central’s “Strangers with Candy” so invigorating, but misfires leave the viewer indifferent and disheartened.

“Mean Girls” follows the fortunes of peppy, good-hearted Cady Heron (Lindsay Lohan). She’s the new kid in her suburban high school. And because she’s been home-schooled in Africa by her zoologist parents, she’s utterly perplexed by the social scene, and by the exotic tribes — “art freaks,” “unfriendly black hotties” and “sexually active band geeks” — that carefully nurture mutual hostility within it. Recalling her former happiness in Africa, she spots a table of black students in the cafeteria and rushes toward them, but is appalled to discover they don’t understand the Swahili greeting she lobs in their direction. After that, black students, along with any substantive reference to Cady’s African past, are promptly exiled from the picture, leaving one to wonder why so much trouble is taken to provide her with so unusual a background. Perhaps because Tina Fey recently rented “Lorenzo’s Oil”?

Cady has better luck ingratiating herself with a pair of quasi-outcasts: a punky artist rumored to be a lesbian (Lizzy Caplan) and her lovable friend (Daniel Franzese), a gay guy straight from central casting. Together, this pair guides Cady through the social inferno, warning her in particular against “the Plastics,” a trio of feared and idolized fashion plates led by the steely Regina (Rachel McAdams). But when these prima donnas take a shine to Cady’s looks (they deem her “a regulation hottie”), Cady, with the blessing of her oddball friends, decides to infiltrate the elite and gather intelligence that can be used to destroy them. Before long, however, Cady finds herself transfixed by their ritualized obsession with status and appearance, unable to resist the allure of girls who sit around critiquing each other’s cuticles and dissing all their acquaintances. In short order, she falls for Regina’s adorable ex (Jonathan Bennett) and gives herself over wholly to the dark side, chucking the pair who first befriended her and thus setting herself up for a crisis of conscience worthy of a middling after-school special.

The teachers and parents buzzing about the periphery of this Lorne Michaels production mostly have “SNL” connections: Ana Gasteyer, Amy Poehler, Tim Meadows and Fey herself. As a beleaguered math teacher, loveless and broke, Fey projects an unremitting note of weariness that sucks the life out of all her scenes, as do the similar, one-note performances of her peers. With this movie, they will learn what many of their predecessors have learned before: The big screen demands something like acting and is a poor forum for those who come bearing only schtick.

All this makes for grueling enough viewing, but what is most galling is that “Mean Girls” merely pretends to be on the side of the losers and the excluded. In the end, the message is pretty clear that the misfits get what they deserve. It’s not giving anything of value away to reveal that the rumors of lesbianism turn out to be unfounded, a plot point that makes the movie far more palatable to studio executives and mainstream audiences. The likable gay character flirts with going straight himself, and although he doesn’t, he remains primly unattached throughout. His sexuality is merely a springboard for laughs, and the movie even bids us to join in the fun when a hooligan assaults him for singing a languorous ballad at the talent show.

It’s, therefore, all the more annoying to sit through the movie’s final moments, when the script wanders off into a swamp of piety, and we have to endure Cady’s plea that we all just get along. Bagging the big game in the blackboard jungle takes more energy and imagination than this tepid, timid and ungenerous movie can muster. *S

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