I prefer my icons unironic, which makes the new Nancy Drew movie a bit discomfiting. Pitched in a tonal range uncomfortably close to the Scooby-Doo and Brady Bunch movies, Andrew Fleming's Nancy Drew revamp stars the annoyingly perky Emma Roberts as the teen detective (77 in literary years). Though Roberts was around 15 at the time of shooting, she looks and acts much younger. The cumulative effect of Fleming's direction and Roberts' casting is to make eternal heroine Nancy into a chipmunk-chipper detective and a social nincompoop.
Predictably, the small town girl from River Heights has a big adventure in Hollywood, where she's promised her father Carson (Tate Donovan) to go cold turkey on sleuthing. "Who are we kidding?", the addict tells her friends. "I can't stop." But Nancy's no Paris—she proves it's hip to be square by dressing in old fashions (costumes by Jeffrey Kurland) and telling people that courtesy counts. Nancy Drew fans will react with dismay to the all-out comedy pushed right from the film's opening sequence (warning sign: Chris Kattan as a burglar). Nancy single-handedly solves a case while surrounded by incompetent authority figures: a security guard, the police force—she even waves off the fire department when descending from a towering ledge.
In short order, Nancy is saying goodbye to shy, patient boyfriend Ned Nickerson (Max Thieriot of The Astronaut Farmer) and relocating to a spooky, Old-Hollywood mansion with its own unsolved mystery: the suspicious death of a faded movie star (Laura Elena Harring). The mystery expands to include the starlet's veteran agent (Barry Bostwick), apparent heiress (Rachael Leigh Cook), and missing will. Real-estate agent Barbara Barbara (Caroline Aaron) finishes the mansion tour by saying, "Oh, did I mention? There's a strange caretaker," and the Scooby-Doo vibe only thickens with holographic ghosts, a too-obvious suspect, and a goofy sidekick.
Josh Flitter (The Greatest Game Ever Played) plays pre-teen Corky, who unaccountably dresses like Starsky and/or Hutch to tag along, puppy-like, on Nancy's investigations. "The ability to sleuth is an attractive quality in a woman," he tells her. Ned's basically from the books (where he's a confident college football star), but newfangled Corky crowds out traditional Nancy compatriots Bess (Amy Bruckner) and George (Kay Panabaker). Nancy fails to fit in at Hollywood High, but she does drive a retro-chic, powder-blue Roadster, which gets involved in at least one car chase.
On balance, Nancy Drew is a lot less harmful than a lot of movies aimed at tween girls. Nancy's her own person, ultimately following her own bliss more than any man. And the Drew family motto is "Others first." Still, the teen detective's ultra-competence is exalted on one hand and played for laughs on the other. Her smarts are tempered with girly concessions: she's an anal-retentive overachiever carrying a Pee-Chee, reading Everything is Evidence as well as InStyle, and getting what she wants with sweet talk and sweeter baked goods.
Instead of playing the franchise's inherently unlikely premise straight, Fleming indulges its absurdity, with onlookers comically swooning as Nancy performs an emergency trach. The mystery itself is passable—yes, flashlights and secret passages figure in—and an escape from a disused theatre has the right idea for a Nancy Drew setpiece, though goofily executed. And there it is: Fleming (Dick) and co-screenwriter Tiffany Paulsen keep ruining a good thing by forcing self-aware humor into the mix, including a silly cameo by a major Hollywood action star. In the film's final-straw moment, Nancy run in slo-mo from a bomb she fails to defuse.
The film opens on a shot of bookshelves containing the collection of Nancy Drew superfan Jennifer Fisher (an official consultant on the film), but Fisher's website reveals a conspicuous lack of opinion as to the content of the film. One suspects Fisher would have to concede that the new Nancy Drew is closer to the fluffy Warner films from the '30s than the beloved novels. The new film is OK for the most undiscriminating of tween girls, but nostalgia seekers should run back to their own bookshelves.