Reel Opinions

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Nancy Drew

Having never read the various books, or watched the numerous movies and TV shows based around the character, I walked into Nancy Drew with no expectations or knowledge. I quickly came to realize that this may not be the best circumstances to watch this movie. It seems to delight in sending up the character and the stories every chance it gets, and almost seems to be one big in-joke. Nancy herself almost seems to be stuck in the same time warp that the Brady Bunch were in during the two theatrical films they got in the mid 90s. She still dresses like a teenager on a 1950s sitcom, and she's overly courteous, while the rest of the world around her has "evolved" into the cynical society we know today. It's admirable that she stays the same way she is at the beginning of the film, and does not let the outside world change her. As for the movie itself, it's not without its charms, but didn't really make me want to learn more about the character so I can be more in on the joke.

As the film opens, we find the famous teenage super sleuth Nancy (Emma Roberts) in her environment in the small old fashioned town of River Heights, where she is treated as a hero by the police and everyone else. She's forced to leave it all behind when Nancy's dad, Carson (Tate Donovan), gets a job opportunity in Los Angeles. While they're in L.A. for the summer, Nancy makes a promise to her father that she will be a normal girl and not get wrapped up in any mysteries. This promise proves to be hard to keep when it turns out the house they move into once belonged to an old-time movie actress named Dehlia Draycott (Laura Elena Harring), who disappeared for a couple years, made a surprising return, and then was found dead in her swimming pool shortly after she came back. More than uncovering the mystery that her new house holds, Nancy is finding it hard to fit in with the kids at her new school, with only a 12-year-old kid named Corky (John Flitter) supporting her. As she slowly gathers information and eventually tracks down Dehlia's lost daughter who was put up for adoption (Rachel Leigh Cook), Nancy finds her life in danger as mysterious men start leaving threatening phone calls and trying to run her down on the street. With some additional assistance from her best boyfriend from River Heights, Ned (Max Thieriot), Nancy just might be able to solve this decades-old Hollywood mystery.

Nancy Drew begins with a rather sweet tribute to the original stories, as we see a collection of the original books, and then are treated to some of the illustrations during the opening credits. From that point on, co-writer and director Andrew Fleming (Dick, The In-Laws) decides to go for less of a tribute approach, and gears more toward parody. I kind of got a hunch when stand up comic Chris Kattan showed up as an incompetent burglar whom Nancy foils in the opening scene, but when Nancy and her dad arrived at the spooky mansion that was to be their home in California, and the overly cheerful real estate lady happily points out "the strange, spooky caretaker who lives in the guest house down the hill", I knew that this movie wasn't exactly aiming to be a faithful recreation. The film is an odd mixture of in-joke parody, fish-out-of-water comedy, and preteen mystery. The problem here is that Nancy Drew often comes across as being directionless as it switches gears in each scene. It often feels padded and stretched out, as if the filmmakers couldn't figure out how to make it work. The mystery at the core of the story is a mess as well, and fails to capture our interest. Nancy seems to stumble onto clues with no explanation or effort, and some of her decisions don't even make sense. (Why would tracking down the long lost daughter of Dehlia help her if the daughter didn't know the actress was her mother in the first place?) There are some fun old-fashioned mystery elements in the film, such as using a flashlight to explore secret underground passages and riddles left behind by mysterious ghostly apparitions that pop up in the house, but these are underused and don't make as big of an impression as they should.

The main thing that keeps the film afloat is that it has a sense of fun that flows throughout, and the cast seem to be in generally good spirits. Young Emma Roberts comes from a very talented family (she is related to Julia Roberts), and although she still has a long way to go to matching up to some of the more famous members of her family, she still has a good spirit and likeable charm that at least makes Nancy easy to get behind. As her child sidekick, John Flitter squeezes off a couple good one liners here and there, and at least doesn't come across as being annoying. There's even a fun cameo by Bruce Willis who appears as himself when Nancy accidently finds herself on the set of a movie during one of her investigations. The only actor who doesn't seem to be having fun with his material is Max Thieriot, who seems so bland and uninteresting, you can't help but wonder what Nancy's attraction is to him. His line readings are dull and uninspired, and he almost seems to be half-asleep in some of his scenes. It's a sharp contrast to Roberts' spirited performance as the title character. Still, there are some other things to admire, such as a few action sequences that actually manage to build some real tension, and an overall attractive look to the film.
Nancy Drew is perfectly harmless kids entertainment that is sure to win over its target audiences, and not leave adults looking at their watches. I probably would have liked it even more if the film could decide if it wanted to be a tribute or a parody, as it sometimes tries to do both in the same scene. I personally liked the film best when it was being an old fashioned mystery, and focusing on Nancy herself, instead of making her a joke by having her stand out so much from the rest of society. As the film depicts her, Nancy is a positive person and an individual, not someone who deserves to be mocked or poked fun at. There's a lot to admire here, and even more to disappoint. The end result is a passable, but highly uneven, experience.



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