'Nancy Drew': Plodding and Plucky

Emma Roberts supplies gumption and a sunny disposition to the title role of the teen sleuth.
Emma Roberts supplies gumption and a sunny disposition to the title role of the teen sleuth. (By Melinda Sue Gordon -- Warner Bros. Pictures Via Ap)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 15, 2007

Emma Roberts was the best thing about the otherwise forgettable "Aquamarine" last year, and she takes the deserved lead in "Nancy Drew," loosely based on the classic mystery series that brings the eponymous girl detective into the 21st century without sacrificing her old-school charm and gumption. Journeyman director Andrew Fleming ("The In-Laws," "The Craft") brings "Nancy Drew" back to screens with workmanlike dedication, if not dazzling imagination. Much like its sweet-natured but businesslike heroine, the movie plays it right down the middle, resulting in a modest but unobjectionable summer diversion.

The film jumps right into the action, as Nancy nixes a robbery in her home town of River Heights, bringing a couple of thugs to her own brand of sweet justice with a combination of moxie, physical courage and baked goods. Later that day her dad, Carson (Tate Donovan), tells her he needs to go to Los Angeles on business and she's coming with him. One rule: no sleuthing.

But rules were made to be broken, and once ensconced in a creepy Hollywood mansion, Nancy begins to solve a legendary murder mystery having to do with the disappearance of the gorgeous actress Dehlia Draycott way back in, like, the '80s. (The story was written by Tiffany Paulsen specifically for the movie, and isn't taken from a particular Nancy Drew book.) Sleuth Nancy must along the way cross paths with a creepy caretaker, a slimy entertainment lawyer, nasty thugs and some really nasty high school Queen Bees.

The demure, doe-eyed Roberts, who at 16 often seems closer to 14, will no doubt remind many filmgoers of a young Natalie Portman more than her own Aunt Julia in "Nancy Drew," which combines the old and the new with sometimes disquieting results.

The story's plot, a mash-up of "Sunset Boulevard," "The Black Dahlia" and "Mulholland Drive," will make cynics in the audience half expect to see Naomi Watts jump out of the bushes at some points.

And even Nancy's penchant for mystery-solving is portrayed less as a lovable quirk than as a deep, psychologically rooted compulsion, akin to the cutting habits and eating disorders of so many girls Nancy's age. Ultimately in "Nancy Drew," all things lead to the lost mother, whether it's Dehlia's disappearance or Nancy's own primal loss.

Add to that neurotic undercurrent some perilous chases and explosions, as well as a whiff of gun violence, and "Nancy Drew" could be seen as flirting with the dark side when it isn't either too plotty or too ploddy. But Nancy keeps the mood as sunny as her disposition, managing to retain her smarts, composure and ramrod-straight posture through her worst scrapes with danger. Scariest among them: the attentions of Corky, a be-crushed 12-year-old played by Josh Flitter, who has the physique of a Munchkin and the delivery of a borscht belt pro. Between Corky's incessant wisecracking and Nancy's own obsessive perfectionism, "Nancy Drew" is as much a study in the varieties of grating precociousness as it is an old-fashioned mystery.

There's a funny cameo starring Bruce Willis and the super-cute baby blue Nash convertible that Nancy gets to scoot around in, but more than anything, as one character is heard to exclaim, viewers -- at least those not put off by Nancy's unfailing goody-two-shoes demeanor -- will just " love the sincerity." With her impeccable grooming and prim wardrobe, our Nancy is a welcome oasis of Talbots in a desert of Hot Topics.

"Nancy Drew" manages to navigate the era of cellphones and Mean Girls with retro nostalgia and wholesomeness, making it a rare girl-powered outing for 'tweens in an otherwise guy-dominated summer.

Maybe next time Nancy can solve one of Hollywood's most enduring mysteries: the Case of the Missing Girl Hero.

Nancy Drew (90 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for mild violence and profanity.

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