Nancy Drew

| June 22, 2007

As a kid, I read all the old-school Nancy Drew books, so naturally I was excited to see the latest film incarnation of the famous girl detective. First published in the 1930s under the pseudonym Carolyn Keene, the Nancy Drew series has undergone frequent updating, including revising the type of car Nancy drives, upping the action-suspense factor, even developing a storyline that features a flirtation with a Hardy Boy–all with the aim of maintaining Nancy’s cultural immediacy. Director and co-screenwriter Andrew Fleming takes another tack in his recently released film Nancy Drew by depicting Nancy as a type-A, decidedly retro teenage girl. For the most part, this interpretation works, and the film proves an entertaining story about a fish out of water who wins over her adversaries with tenacity and charm.
Fleming opens the movie in dramatic fashion with Nancy capturing two thieves and rappelling off the roof of a building. As the police chief tells Nancy’s father, “Nancy is our best man…if she was on the force, I mean.” Everyone in the town of River Heights knows and admires Nancy, and her life is pretty darn saccharine.
Fleming quickly moves beyond the limitations of this all-too-happy conceit by sending Nancy and her father to Los Angeles. Her lawyer father, Carson Drew, has taken a lucrative case to bolster their financial security (a plot point that makes no sense considering evidence that the Drews are quite well off, but why nitpick?). Mr. Drew asks Nancy to stop sleuthing while in Los Angeles and to try being a normal girl, which he defines as having fun and shopping. But in hip L.A., classically-dressed Nancy is a social outsider, befriended only by pudgy 12-year-old Corky (Josh Flitter). Soon enough, she feels compelled to solve the mysterious disappearance and murder of an actress.
The details of the mystery are not all that important, though I should caution parents that there are some spooky moments involving a haunted house and a creepy groundskeeper. What makes Nancy so fascinating is how she doggedly pursues the truth on her own terms. As presented here, Nancy refuses to drive over the speed limit, even when involved in a car chase. She doesn’t intimidate her suspects but rather coerces information by offering smiles and baked goods prepared by her housekeeper in River Heights. And yet, she’s still a girl, nervous about telling her friend Ned that she, you know, likes him likes him.
Emma Roberts (yes, she’s Julia Roberts’s niece) delights as Nancy. She doesn’t overwhelm with screen presence, but she is quite pretty and exudes the appropriate confidence. Dressing in a style borrowed from the ’50s, Nancy is mocked by her peers (typical, annoying, all-too-hip teenagers with zero depth). Her feelings get hurt, but Nancy has too much confidence to let empty jeers deter her. Nancy Drew is a refreshing role model for the young women who will see this movie.
In a nod to fans of the books, Fleming offers brief sightings of housekeeper Hannah and best friends Bess and George (Bess is typically chubby and George is boyish). Ned Nickerson plays a larger role in the movie and demonstrates his characteristic deference to Nancy. I always found Ned to be a bit of a dolt in the books, but Max Thieriot gives him an endearing sincerity.
Tate Donovan portrays Nancy’s father, a character that remains largely in the background of the books. Fleming and Donovan interpret him as a flustered and sometimes clueless dad. In one scene, he arrives home to find that Nancy’s birthday party has been broken up by the cops. He congratulates and hugs Nancy, a reaction that is at once predictable and painfully awkward. Donovan attempts to maintain his dignity, but Fleming simply does not give him much to do.
The movie also falters every time it reaches for comedy–the screenplay by Fleming and Tiffany Paulsen tries too hard to be cute and ends up recycling old jokes. While Nancy is a charming character, the thieves at the film’s opener experience more of a character journey than she does. The cheese-meter occasionally reaches frightening levels, as well.
But I don’t think it is just the fan in me that wants to forgive all that. Sure, the movie isn’t terribly deep or sophisticated, but it is something more important–fun.

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