Title: Nancy Drew
Genre: Comedy, Crime, Family
Director: Andrew Fleming
Screenwriters: Andrew Fleming, Tiffany Paulsen
Starring: Emma Roberts, Tate Donovan, Max Thieriot
Nancy Drew opens with a series of static black-and-white illustrations, the sorts of evocative drawings that suggest mystery, adventure — pictures that scream out “good book.” In the closing shots, appropriately enough, the very same illustrations transform into the boring, blandly colorful images that comprise the film proper. The purported stylistic move is chillingly symbolic of this entire project, which takes a literary series that has captured kids’ imaginations for decades and turns it into an unimaginative piece of bubble-gum nonsense. It’s precisely the sort of thoughtless, pointlessly faithful adaptation that fans of the books should fear.
The movie is a missed opportunity not only because of the source material’s pedigree, but because here is a story about a smart teenager — a plucky genius, a role model. It is so rare for family films to have a believably bright young hero that Nancy Drew could have claimed a spot at the top of the heap had the screenplay gotten the title character right. A teen detective, for chrissake — not a wizard or a superhero, but a sleuth — it’s fucking perfect. Nancy Drew could have had me from the word go.
Alas, the film hasn’t a clue. It doesn’t even do us the courtesy of taking Nancy, played by the snooze-inducing Emma Roberts, seriously. Rather than taking her intelligence at face value, the script makes her so cartoonish that it seems to be mocking her. How else to explain her complete social obliviousness — the laundry list of inane grievances she brings to the bewildered principal of her new school, for example, or her apparent lack of awareness that she is being universally mocked? The ultimate moral may be that it’s cool to be a nerd, but the movie makes it seem awful. Paradoxically, a smart kid may leave with the message that it’s better to be “cool” than smart.
This flippant, irritating attitude poisons everything Nancy Drew does. Nancy’s dad (Tate Donovan) obsessively nags his daughter to “stop sleuthing” so that he can go to his new job in California without having to worry about her — he would rather that she throw big parties and trash the house while he’s away on business, because such transgressions are things a “normal teenager” does. What the hell? For comic relief, the film adds the character of Corky (Josh Flitter), a shrill, useless 12 year-old I wanted to punch in the face, while Nancy’s sweet and modest boyfriend Ned (Max Thierot) — the only part of the movie remotely in touch with any mode of reality — gets pushed to the sidelines.
The mystery, too, though surprisingly elaborate, winds up getting pushed to the sidelines as our heroes go shopping and take pointless jaunts through movie sets, where Bruce Willis offers Nancy a directing gig. Nancy Drew seems suitably impressed with its heroine’s sleuthing skills, and demonstrates this by having Corky act aggressively confused even if Nancy’s detective work isn’t actually all that confusing (did I mention I despise Corky? A lot?). The central puzzle, involving the mysterious death of an old-time Hollywood star (Laura Harring), has a noirish flavor that would have made it seem promising were the movie paying attention. Sadly, it’s off gallivanting in the land of the Disney Channel.
I know it sounds like I am demanding something more serious than a Nancy Drew movie should or ever would be, but trust me: it’s not so. I used “cartoonish” pejoratively above, and frankly I didn’t mean it like that. There’s nothing wrong with cartoonish, but there’s a lot wrong with dim-witted. Nancy Drew is light-years beyond this adaptation.