It’s been nearly 70 years since a theatrical film was made about Nancy Drew, teen detective, so a new movie has the opportunity to introduce her to a whole new generation of moviegoers. Played with confidence and panache by Emma Roberts (Julia’s niece), the 21st-century Nancy is resourceful, old-fashionedly polite, and practically addicted to the fine art of sleuthing. I can see tween girls idolizing her all over again.
Simply called “Nancy Drew,” the new film brings Nancy and her dad, attorney Carson Drew (Tate Donovan), to Los Angeles for a few months for vaguely explained reasons. Nancy has promised her father that she will forsake all sleuthing (the word “sleuth” and its forms are used approximately 10,000 times over the course of the movie), yet she is powerless to resist investigating the mystery surrounding the previous owner of the house the Drews are renting during their stay in La-La Land.
It seems Dehlia Draycott (Laura Harring) was a promising young actress who disappeared for several weeks 25 years ago. After her return, she lived only a few months before winding up dead in her swimming pool. The murder, and its connection to her prior vanishing, was never solved. Why, it’s a tasty old-style Hollywood mystery!
Nancy busies herself with the Dehlia Draycott mystery, aided by her new sidekick and admirer, Corky (Josh Flitter), a squatty, comical 12-year-old who you think is going to be annoying but actually turns out to be pretty funny. Meanwhile, she’s trying to fit in at school, where her prim, old-fashioned clothing and general excellence at everything from athletics to math make her an outsider.
Fans of the Nancy Drew novels, mostly written in the 1930s and periodically updated since then, will find most of the basic elements intact, though the transfer from Midwestern burg River Heights to glitzy L.A. is an obvious departure. (The film’s first scenes are set in River Heights, where she appears to be the only person doing any actual police work.) Still, Nancy’s roadster is on hand, and so is her soon-to-be-boyfriend Ned Nickerson (Max Thieriot), who comes out to visit and to enjoy a session of hot sleuthing action. It’s probably impossible to capture the exact tone of the novels without setting the film in the ’30s, but the filmmakers seem to have done their best to be respectful to the old material.
The director, Andrew Fleming (“Dick,” “The Craft”), who cowrote the screenplay with Tiffany Paulsen, slips in the occasional sly joke about the conventions of murder mysteries. As the Drews are moving into the Draycott mansion, the real estate agent mentions, “Oh, there’s a stranger caretaker who lives in an apartment down the hill.” There’s always a strange caretaker in these stories, isn’t there? It’s nice to hear someone actually describe him in those words.
Later, Nancy’s resourcefulness has been modernized so completely that she can perform an emergency tracheotomy on someone with just a pen and a knife. The film has a wry, buoyant sense of humor, and you get the feeling that odd touches like that are intentionally funny.
Now, it’s only fair to mention that one of the perks of making a junior version of a Sherlock Holmes or Miss Marple story is that, since it’s the junior version, you don’t have to be quite so concerned about the details adding up, or connecting all the dots in the sleuth’s detective work. I could sit here all day and point out the flaws in Nancy’s logic, or the highly improbable events that lead her to various clues. The intended audience will surely delight in their heroine’s exploits, though, and who am I to spoil their fun?
B (1 hr., 39 min.; )