A beloved literary sleuth makes a go at bigscreen crime-solving in “Nancy Drew.” Purportedly an attempt to modernize the young detective’s adventures for a new generation of tweens, the pic instead serves up stale mystery-movie cliches and overcooked red herrings in a thoroughly wooden adaptation. Despite the presence of Nick TV star Emma Roberts, “Nancy Drew” won’t ride enough text-messaging buzz to do big business theatrically. DVD prospects look brighter.
Of course, most young readers today are more interested in the mystical happenings at Hogwarts than the adventures of the old-fashioned Nancy Drew. But for generations of fans, Carolyn Keene’s (a.k.a. Harriet Stratemeyer Adams) Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries were enduring touchstones of childhood literature. Previous incarnations include four William Clemens-helmed Nancy Drew pics in the late ’30s as well as a TV series, “The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries” (ABC, 1977-79); DVD editions of both the films and the series are due this month.
In this case, scribes Andrew Fleming and Tiffany Paulsen have aimed to freshen the formula by changing the setting from small-town River Heights to Los Angeles. In a brisk hometown-set opening sequence, Nancy (Roberts) easily dispatches a couple of thugs, demonstrating her polite manners, mental acuity and acrobatic escape skills. Then she’s off to California with her lawyer dad Carson (Tate Donovan), who has made her promise to give sleuthing a rest.
But Nancy can’t resist a case, and the house they’ve rented holds an unsolved mystery of its own: It’s the notorious Draycott mansion, where celebrated film star Dehlia Draycott (Laura Elena Harring, seen in flashback) was found murdered decades earlier. With its hidden passageways, attic full of Dehlia’s archives and cranky caretaker Mr. Leshing (Marshall Bell), the house offers Nancy plenty of clues.
Where she can’t seem to get a clue, it seems, is high school; in her prim plaid skirts, penny loafers, knee socks and matching headbands, Nancy is an anachronism, quickly eliciting the scorn of “cool” girls Inga (Daniella Monet) and Trish (Kelly Vitz), as well as the curiosity of precocious 12-year-old Corky (Josh Flitter). You don’t have to be a detective to pick up traces of “Clueless,” which, while good for a few laughs, feel like clunky afterthoughts.
Undaunted by the girls’ derision, Nancy marches forward trying to solve Dehlia’s murder. With Corky as her new sidekick and her old pal (and romantic prospect) Ned (Max Thieriot) in town for a visit, Nancy quickly uncovers Dehlia’s long-lost child (Rachael Leigh Cook), the rightful heir to her mother’s estate. But wait: Nancy must contend with menacing phone calls, side-swiping cars, false-bottom boxes, shadowy figures and yes, creaky boards before she’s done.
Even the script’s predictable plot contrivances might have been less egregious if the actors looked as if they were having some fun, but under helmer Fleming, the cast is as stiff as the dialogue. Roberts (TV’s “Unfabulous”) gets the look right, but her Nancy doesn’t feel fully three-dimensional. Only Donovan and Barry Bostwick, in a small supporting role, inject some spark into their perfs.
Tech credits are fine, particularly Tony Fanning’s production design for the musty Draycott mansion and Alexander Gruszynski’s colorful lensing of Los Angeles. Ralph Sall’s music, however, seems to have been pumped at full blast in order to cover for script deficiencies.