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Nancy Drew (2007) Print E-mail
Wednesday, 15 June 2005
The Nancy Drew novels were—and are—product, hardly art. They first appeared about 75 years ago, a series of detective novels aimed at girls from about 16 on down. All were supposedly authored by the fictional “Carolyn Keene,” but were actually written by a long list of writers, most of whom also toiled on the same company’s “Hardy Boys” mysteries, very similar books aimed at teenage and younger males. (One TV series even teamed Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys.)

Four Nancy Drew movies were made as a short series back in the 1930s, starring vivacious, buxom Bonita Granville as the girl sleuth; they’re very much a product of their times, but are still a lot of fun to watch, and are being issued as a DVD set timed to the release of this movie.

After the screening, I exited the theater surrounded by little girls—all under 14 or so—chattering happily about the movie they just saw. This is a strong clue to the audience for this film: girls over 14 or so are likely to find Nancy and her adventures lame (or whatever the current word is for un-cool; maybe it’s “un-cool”), while girls below that are likely to react similarly to those at the press screening: Nancy Drew will become one of their new heroines.

To a degree, this will be despite the movie. It’s pleasant, light entertainment, ideal for a Saturday matinee, but for misguided reasons, the filmmakers have elected to slightly sneer at their teenage heroine. It’s as if they want to show that they are superior to this juvenilia, when they would have been better off embracing it. Very little has been done to bring Nancy up to date—but there was no reason to do so, either. She could have been made to seem contemporary, but a self-possessed young lady with old-fashioned but valid ideas. The movie does come close to that viewpoint, mostly due to the performance of Emma Roberts in the title role. (She’s the daughter of Eric Roberts, and the niece of Julia.)

She’s a solid actor with a very firm grasp on her character. Even though the movie does, and even though opportunities present themselves, she never sends up Nancy, never condescends to the role. The result: those very happy little girls, talking to each other about their admiration for Nancy Drew.

Somewhat unexpectedly, Roberts’ portrayal of Nancy is very similar to that of Bonita Granville, 70 years ago. She’s very serious about her detective work—which she (and, weirdly, everyone else) refers to as “sleuthing.” As the movie opens, she not only captures a pair of burglars, but convinces them to give themselves up, and survives a near-fall from the top of a building. But the story proper begins when her widower father, lawyer Carson Drew (Tate Donovan), and Nancy leave their Midwestern hamlet of River Heights for a temporary job in Los Angeles.
The screenplay, co-written by director Andrew Fleming and Tiffany Paulsen, confusingly (and unnecessarily) make Nancy promise her dad that she won’t do any “sleuthing” while in L.A. However, since Carson asked her to choose the house they rent, she’s picked one that comes equipped with a vaguely “Sunset Blvd.”-like mystery: 25 years before, movie star Dehlia Draycott (Laura Elena Harring, seen in flashbacks), was murdered in the home, which has remained untouched. Her killer was never found. But unsmiling, gruff groundsman Leshing (Marshall Bell) might be a suspect.

At school, Nancy is scoffed at by ultra-contemporary girls, but catches the eye of much younger Corky (Josh Flitter, who isn’t as charming as director Fleming evidently assumes), a pudgy kid who’s attracted to Nancy. A couple of girls at school scorn her, playing a practical joke on her; the way Roberts responds gains our sympathy, not our pity—another indication that the movie could have treated her character with a little more care: Roberts is up to it.

She does have a boyfriend back home, Ned Nickerson (Max Thieriot), who delivers her blue Rambler convertible to California. Meanwhile, Carson meets with wealthy attorney Dashiel Bidermeyer, who’s played by Barry Bostwick—an actor well-known enough that anyone in the audience familiar with mystery movies will realize he’ll have a larger part in the proceedings later on.

One of the more interesting aspects of this pleasant but unexceptional little movie is that Nancy’s detective work actually makes sense: her choices are logical, her leg work is dogged yet believable. She gradually uncovers information about the Draycott house, where she and her father are living: it may be haunted, what with all those weird noises at night. And of course, in the grand tradition of juvenile mysteries, she eventually learns it practically bristles with secret passages, hidden rooms and subterranean tunnels.

She also uncovers information about Dehlia Draycott’s past—although the clippings she finds seem to date from the early 1950s rather than the late 1970s. It’s not revealing anything significant to report that Draycott secretly had a daughter whom she gave up for adopting. Nancy tracks down this woman, Jane Brighton (Rachael Leigh Cook), who has a young daughter of her own. No will by Dehila was ever found, so Nancy tries to locate it, hoping to help Jane and her daughter.

It’s irritating that someone on the filmmaking team decided that Nancy’s character needed “rooting interest.” Her own mother died when Nancy was so young that she barely remembers her, creating a link (where none was really needed) with Jane—and also with Dehlia herself, who never knew her own daughter. This is dropped into the middle of the story like a dumpling into soup, but doesn’t make the movie better or Nancy more interesting. It’s just there.

Ned (who was Ted in the Granville “Nancy Drew”s) is in and out of the story, trading sullen glances with Corky. There are sinister men following Nancy, an attempt on her life and even a car chase—somewhat unlikely in this context.

The wide-screen cinematography by Alexander Gruszynski is open and sunny, making good use of Los Angeles locations, including Olvera Street (where Bruce Willis has a cameo as himself) and Chinatown. Tony Fanning’s production design, particularly of the Draycott home, is imaginative and rich in detail, even if it does look more like the home of a movie star of the 1930s than one of the 1970s. The less said about Ralph Sall’s blaring score, the better. (Aside from Willis, there’s only one in-joke; the producer is the veteran Jerry Weintraub; a crook in the movie Willis is making is one “Spider Weintraub.”)

There’s not much attempt at comedy, just some mild jokes. One of the Hollywood High School girls, finding herself next to Nancy, texts a friend “OMG! Im stng next 2 Martha Stewart!” She annoys her classmates by being very good at everything, classwork, sports—even lunch. The girls eventually like Nancy and take her to a Rodeo Drive boutique to get outfitted as befits a 21st century teen—but the clerk is taken with Nancy’s quite attractive but retro outfit of plaid skirt, vest and sweater, much to the shock of the other teenagers. This funny but graceful nod to the idea that Nancy just doesn’t go out of style is very welcome.

The movie itself is somewhat flat; it doesn’t make good use of the Draycott house or even that it has (bizarrely) been set up by someone (who?) to act like a haunted house. Scenes trail off, they don’t end with a little snap, as scenes in this kind of movie usually should.

And in its modest way, so is this movie. It’s not really for adults, but then, neither were the Nancy Drew books. “You’re just not like the other girls, Nancy,” someone says—and that has always been part of her charm. If this had been made with a bit more wit and understanding of the appeal of Nancy Drew, it could have been a lot better. But don’t try to tell that to a ten-year-old girl whose new favorite character is girl sleuth Nancy Drew.

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