I’m not above admitting that I read Nancy Drew novels when I was a kid. In the grand scheme of things I think it was generally acknowledged that boys were supposed to read Hardy Boys books and girls were the ones who were supposed to read Nancy Drew. I’m not sure why, but I always like Nancy’s stories better. Maybe it was because she was cool enough to solve mysteries on her own but it took two guys to manage the same feat. Hooray for feminism. Whatever the reason, I enjoyed wasting my forty-five minutes of library time reading those kinds of books. Now, thanks to the magic of cinema, I can waste twice that long watching a movie version.
OK, waste of time might be a stretch. Nancy Drew is actually an enjoyable little mystery movie for a younger audience. Or better put, it’s an entertaining but really long public service announcement about being true to who you are, punctuated by enjoyable little tidbits of a mystery movie. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. Younger viewers could use some entertainment that isn’t completely shallow marketing wrapped in pseudo-good-role-model trappings (yes Aquamarine and Bratz, I’m looking at you).
Nancy Drew books usually had some kind of a subtitle, like “Nancy Drew: The Secret In The Old Attic”. The movie forgoes any such extra title, but if it had one it would be Nancy Drew: and the Mystery of Trying Not To Solve Mysteries. Nancy (Emma Roberts) has been taking some pretty close calls with her recent sleuthing and her father, attorney Carson Drew (Tate Donovan), is concerned that she isn’t spending enough time just being a kid. He decides to take on a case for a major law firm in Los Angeles for the summer and makes Nancy promise to set aside sleuthing and just enjoy herself. But, try as she might, she just can’t refuse a good mystery.
Her adventure involves solving the mysterious death of Hollywood starlet Dehlia Draycott. As in any good Nancy Drew story the teenage detective has plenty of time between finding clues to help out other folks, host a birthday party and meet with the principal to discuss ways to improve her new Los Angeles school (yes, school in the summer… I’ll get to that in a minute). All of the trademark Drew elements are included, right down to the sleuthing kit (now complete with indispensable digital recorder), savvy blue convertible roadster, whipped boyfriend Ned and housemaid Hannah. There’s nothing missing from this adventure. It’s what’s been added that gets in the way.
In this new Los Angeles home Nancy finds herself more than slightly out of place. Her rather old fashioned New England style and manners rub the wrong way against the local superficialities and vapid LA teenagers. The new kids don’t really figure into the story all that much, but serve as ever-present secondary antagonists who seem bent on making Nancy feel awkward. Of course, it doesn’t work; Nancy is a tower of self-esteem and just goes right back to trying to help people. It’s all well and good to see Nancy taking the high road in the face of peer pressure without declaring some kind of teen war (yup, lookin’ at you again Bratz) but it takes up so much of the movie that it begs the question: is this a mystery flick or an after school special?
To make matters worse, sometimes the story just doesn’t make any sense. It’s clearly the summertime, but Nancy immediately starts at a new school when she arrives in LA. She only seems to spend about two weeks attending (complete with a trip to a school basketball game…a sport out of season, but OK) and then doesn’t really have to go anymore. Of course, it would be hard to show her out of her element if she didn’t have to go to school at all, so who cares if it makes no sense, right? And then there are Nancy’s efforts to save a choking person using CPR (sorry, Nance, you meant to use the Heimlich maneuver) and her troubling ability to perform an emergency tracheotomy with a pocket knife and ball point pen (shouldn’t she be leaving that to the professionals?). Of course, the recipient of the tracheotomy appears two scenes later without so much as a bandage. I guess LA kids heal faster than normal ones? Yup, there are plenty of mysteries here beyond the one Nancy is trying to solve.
Despite its flaws and occasional silliness, there’s respect in Hollywood for this picture and it shows. The cast list of cameos and supporting cast is notable: Bruce Willis, Adam Goldberg, Pat Carroll, Rachel Leigh Cook, Barry Bostwick, Eddie Jemison. The main cast is well-thought out as well, with the exception of Miss Drew herself. Emma Roberts may have the same blood flowing through her veins as her aunt Julia, but she lacks any of her charisma on screen. Despite Emma’s dull presentation as a leading lady, the movie has enough energy to see her through to the end. Nancy Drew may be a disappointment for those who remember the better days of the books, but it's a great movie for younger audiences.
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