Sarcasm 101

School is a scary, and very funny, place in 'Mean Girls.'

I thought Hollywood had girled itself out this season, with movies like "Chasing Liberty" and "The Prince & Me" elbowing each other off the screen like pushy kids in a cafeteria line. But just when this teen-targeted genre seemed overdone to death, along comes an entry that makes it feel fresh.

I don't mean "Mean Girls" is a masterpiece. It has clichés and stereotypes, and some trimming would have helped.

The screenplay by Tina Fey - head writer for "Saturday Night Live" - is marvelously smart, though, and the ensemble cast is uncannily in sync with it.

Lindsay Lohan plays Cady, an American teen who's been home-schooled in another country by her intellectual mom and dad.

When they move to Illinois they decide to "socialize" their daughter by sending her to a regular school. She's instantly awed by what envious peers call the Plastics, privileged girls who set the style for dress, behavior, and everything else.

Before long Cady becomes one of them, betraying the nerds who've taken her under their wing.

Is she a mean girl at heart? And are her self-absorbed companions the kind of friends she really wants?

As you can tell, this could easily have been a sentimental tale of teenage angst and redemption.

What rescues the movie from this hackneyed destiny is Ms. Fey's satirical wit, aimed with equal acuity at the Plastics, the nerds, and everyone in between. Not every barb hits the bull's-eye, but there's a higher ratio of gags to laughs than I've found in almost any comedy this year.

All of which shows how hard it is to predict any season's winners and losers. Just as the 1988 comedy "Big" became a smash after several similar projects made it seem perilously late, the unofficial remake called "13 Going on 30" shows signs of becoming a hit in the current teen-pic sweepstakes.

It's good, but "Mean Girls" is better - and that's no accident, since Mark Waters also directed Lohan in "Freaky Friday," one of last year's best family films.

Here's hoping they team up again and again and again.

Rated PG-13; contains sexuality and vulgarity.

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