Back in the olden days, Nancy Drew was fresh. A teenaged detective with a long-suffering single father and an admiring, frequently befuddled boyfriend, she was the protagonist in a series of novels written by a number of writers (all under one name, the made-up “Carolyn Keene”). Bright, funny, and “strawberry blond,” she was considered “bold” for her various eras (from 1930 through today). (In early volumes, she even carried a gun.) Older than the Bobbsey twins, and a girl (unlike the Hardy boys), Nancy outsmarted dastardly crooks and remain loyal, above all, to her best friends, alluring “tomboy” George and “slightly plump” Bess.
Updated for the big screen in 2007, 16-year-old Nancy (played by Emma Roberts) still has the single lawyer dad, Carson (Tate Donovan), and sort of has the reliable boyfriend, Ned (Max Thieriot), but is otherwise profoundly changed. She begins Andrew Fleming’s Nancy Drew in her usual fictional home in River Heights, Illinois. Here she manages a bit of “action,” in the currently conventional sense, thwarting a couple of smalltime villains (including the eternally tedious Chris Kattan) by rappelling from a church rooftop, earning the praise of the local police chief: “Nance is my best man,” he beams, “Or, she would be if she were on the force.” Nancy smiles too. She knows she’s good. And when her father worries that she’s taken a tumble at the end of her descent, she reassures him, “In the sleuthing business, this kind of thing happens all the time. It’s not a big deal.” Oh no, he frowns, “It is a big deal.”
So big, in fact, that Carson has taken a new, temporary job in Los Angeles, in hopes that a new environment will shift Nancy’s interest to new hobbies. Of course, you know that’s silly and so does she. As always, Nancy prepares for most every eventuality, arranging that their new housing be a Hollywood Hills mansion once owned by Dehlia Draycott (Laura Elena Harring), a movie star whose ghost reportedly haunts the house. If she can’t sleuth live cases, Nancy figures, she might keep in practice on the sly by tracking down old clues regarding the tragically dead Dehlia (found floating in her pool in 1981) and perhaps get on the good side of the Lurchy looking handyman Leshing (Marshall Bell), who tends to pop out of shadows looking grim.
Thus she’s left without her usual cohorts. The film offers a painfully brief goodbye scene for don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-them George (Kay Panabaker) and Bess (Amy Bruckner), plus a few seconds of sad Ned giving his departing one true love a compass, which you worry won’t be nearly enough to help her find her way. Relocating to LA is one thing, leaving behind the best friends on whom she can always depend is another. The vacuum is not even close to filled by 12-year-old Corky (Josh Flitter), who believes himself smitten with Nancy because he sees the other kids picking on her at school. That’s right: as much as she wants to please her father and ”be normal,” Nancy must now waste her time trying to be friends (or at least civil acquaintances) with a couple of too-much-makeup-wearing popular girls, Inga (Daniella Monet) and Trish (Kelly Vitz). Their ugly derision of her prim sweater sets and plaid skirts suggests the movie is celebrating Good Girl Nancy (as opposed to, say, Mean Girls), but the next plot step is just too clumsy to be cute: a fancy dress boutique owner decides Nancy’s “style” is perfectly adorable, then sets about making her into a fashion icon, much to her catty classmates’ horror.
In between high school assemblies and catching Bruce Willis’ eye during a shoot (realizing immediately that she’s cleverer than anyone else on the set, he asks to replace his director, named “Andy”), Nancy pursues the Dehlia mystery, though the film is so poorly structured that you might be forgiven if you lose track of this story. The mystery involves her money, no surprise, as well as a love affair gone wrong, and oh yes, a child born and abandoned, now grown up to be Jane (Rachael Leigh Cook), herself a single mom currently down on her luck. As Jane has no idea she’s the daughter of a rich and famous person, she’s living in a motel room, perfecting her blank and disaffected gaze while she ponders her next life move.
Perky and then some, Nancy does a couple of hours of research, then convinces Jane she’s got a whole new identity in about two minutes. (“Is this a joke?” asks Jane. “I don’t joke,” asserts the apparently really humorless Nancy. Point taken.) Still, the movie must fill out a feature running time, which means Nancy encounters a couple of non-surprises lifted from 1940s serial mysteries, like a Chinese box with a secret compartment and a wealthy lawyer (Barry Bostwick) with a local reputation to preserve. Predictably, she’s more intelligent than any adult in sight (her father seems especially dim in this version of the Drews), and so she’s assured of a solution to the puzzle and the triumph of moral rightness.
Though she drives a car (still an old-fashioned, pale blue roadster) and looks after Carson’s daily needs, she’s an oddly immature teenager, not so much out of time (she has a cell phone) as she is terminally straight. She contemplates each turn of plot as if she doesn’t imagine it coming (while her chronologically younger audience will likely be steps ahead) and preternaturally cool under pressure: “Usually,” she observes following a close call with a speeding car, “When someone tries to kill me, it’s because I’m onto something.” Corky, along for the close encounter, is thrilled: “You’re not like the other girls.” True, but she’s not nearly different enough from other movie girls. And that makes her look more old than fresh.