As a makeover project that relocates its endearingly retro title character from River Heights, USA, to Hollywood High, “Nancy Drew” should probably be ashamed of itself. And even as a mere attempt to create a cool new heroine for tweens — half brainiac and half action star — the movie lacks wit and oomph.
Returning to the big screen after a 69-year absence, Nancy Drew, girl sleuth from the 1930s-born books, is now a 21st-century 16-year-old with a 1950s-style mien. The film, directed and co-written by Andrew Fleming (“Dick”), is a combination whodunit, high-school romp and retro spoof with PG-level punch and a dearth of deeper spark.
Containing more new characters than familiar ones, the story transports Nancy (Emma Roberts) from smallville to Los Angeles with her widowed father (Tate Donovan) for a business-related stay. Having promised her dad she’ll stop sleuthing, Nancy tries to be a normal teen at the aforementioned trendy school, but, with her penny loafers and cupcakes, is ridiculed by semi-mean girls. And how can Nancy resist tackling the mystery of the “Sunset Boulevard”-style drowning death of the movie goddess who lived in the spooky mansion she and her father are renting? Before long, Nancy’s cracking the case, assisted by 12-year-old sidekick Corky (Josh Flitter) and almost-beau Ned (Max Thieriot).
For sure, a girl protagonist who soars on brainpower is a good thing. Additionally, Nancy scores comic points with her tendency to nonchalantly say things such as “I wonder who just tried to kill us” (after SUV-driving thugs nearly squash her and Corky) or to defuse a bomb in a sequence that pokes fun at clichés.
But such appeal happens only in bits. There isn’t enough total zing, smarts, outrageousness or imagination to enable the movie to work as a retro send-up, a teen-life comedy or a detective story. Fleming and co-writer Tiffany Paulsen allow stunts and Hollywood flash, including chases in Nancy’s blue convertible, to upstage the murder mystery, which Nancy solves too effortlessly to make intrigue possible.
Another weakness is Nancy herself, who, as played by Roberts, a Nickelodeon star, is bland and one-note chipper.
You know a film’s in trouble when the costume designer, Jeffrey Kurland, proves the most valuable player, and that’s what happens here. If nothing else, Nancy Drew looks like Nancy Drew. You just wish she had as much personality as her headbands and sweaters.
Nancy Drew **
Starring Emma Roberts, Max Thieriot, Josh Flitter, Tate Donovan
Written by Andrew Fleming, Tiffany Paulsen
Directed by Andrew Fleming
Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes