I have a confession to make: Having been a … well, let’s say unusual child (oh, don’t look so shocked), I never cared much for the antics of the Hardy Boys. No, when it came to the realm of juvenilia detective fiction, as far as I was concerned, you could keep Joe and Frank Hardy. It was Nancy Drew or nothing—and only the older books. None of those updated and expurgated later editions for me. (I wasn’t flummoxed by references to running boards or roadsters, and I didn’t expect books from the 1930s to be exercises in political correctness—not that the term existed then.)
The Nancy Drew series was the final brainchild of Edward Stratemeyer (who also produced the Bobbsey Twins, Tom Swift and the Hardy Boys), founder of the Stratemeyer Syndicate. He died the same year, 1930, that the first Nancy Drew books—The Secret of the Old Clock, The Hidden Staircase, The Bungalow Mystery—appeared. Outlined by Stratemeyer, the books were attributed to a house-brand author, Carolyn Keene, whose real name was Mildred Wirt Benson. (Benson would be the primary author of the Nancy Drew books through the 1940s.)
The movies didn’t try to cash in on the books till 1938 when Warner Bros. brought out a short-lived series of not very impressive B pictures starring Bonita Granville as Nancy. A couple of attempts to create a Nancy Drew TV series didn’t catch on either, so it was a bit of a surprise when Warner Bros. decided to give Nancy Drew a new shot at the big screen with this film. The results—directed and co-written by Andrew Fleming (responsible for that abysmal remake of The In-Laws in 2003)—are an unspectacular mixed bag that tries to straddle two eras with great discomfort and a lot of just plain bad ideas. Despite the fact that there are nearly 200 books in the Nancy Drew series (the less said about the later ones, the better), Fleming and his co-writer Tiffany Paulsen opted to cook up an “original” story that drags Nancy (Emma Roberts) out of the setting of her vaguely Midwestern small town of River Heights and into Los Angeles. I guess they thought it would be snazzier, but since much of the film takes place in a sub-Norma Desmond crumbling Hollywood mansion—Hollywoodiana apart—that might exist anywhere, it doesn’t feel especially different.
The film’s story about the aged murder case of a Hollywood star, Dehila Draycott (David Lynch regular Laura Elena Harring), is serviceable, but no better than any number of original-source novel plots. As a sop to fans, the film name drops several of the actual book titles. They like the 1937 title The Haunted Bridge so well that it crops up as one of Dehlia’s old movies and as the name of a film Bruce Willis—in a pointless cameo that pads the short running time—is in the process of shooting. Other titles are glimpsed when Nancy researches Dehlia’s career on the IMDb. The film also tries to keep a foot in classic Nancy and new Nancy by giving her a convertible 1950s Nash Metropolitan—referred to as her “blue roadster” as in the old books.
One of the film’s problems is that all this is an uneasy mix, especially with the too goofy portrayal of Nancy, who seems far younger than she should and way too proper. (Classic Nancy typically drove too fast; this one won’t exceed the speed limit even in pursuit of the villains.) Pitting her up against Hollywood’s idea of typical Hollywood teenagers merely results in unfunny comedy. Saddling her with a love-struck sidekick played by Josh Flitter (Big Momma’s House 2), a performer who seems to exist solely for people who bemoan the lack of Mason Reese on the entertainment scene these days, is an even worse notion. But what really doesn’t jell is the depiction of a 25-year-old murder in what resembles a Hollywood of 60 years ago! All the movie footage of Dehlia, the atmosphere of her house, the aged car deteriorating in the drive feels wrong for a backstory set in the 1970s. The movie has the weird air of not being able to figure out what era it’s in.
The sleuthing itself isn’t bad, but neither is it very creative or exciting, while the mystery isn’t very mysterious. At its best, Nancy Drew is a so-so movie that probably ought to have been made for TV. It just looks uncomfortable up on the movie screen—like it knows it doesn’t belong there. Rated PG for mild violence, thematic elements and brief language.