Even Nancy Drew (Emma Roberts) can use a refresher course.
Plucky Nancy Drew, portrayed by Julia Robert's niece Emma, is delightful and funny
Things are going sour in the first few minutes of "Nancy Drew," as plucky Nancy foils some sort of heist in her tree-lined Midwestern hometown of River Heights. Something smells here -- the scent of campy desperation. This is being played way too cute, way too patronizingly. Nancy Drew is an authentic American literary hero, and deserves better!
Opens Friday in theaters
But then she and her father, widower-lawyer Carson Drew, are shuffled off to Los Angeles and something approaching the real world, and we realize that the filmmakers were having fun with us. Turns out that to make a modern Nancy Drew movie, you have to get out of River Heights.
In Los Angeles, Nancy gets a chance to practice "sleuthing," as she calls it, trying to solve the mystery of long-dead actress Dehlia Drayton. The movie is ripe with all the things that made the Drew books work -- the unfazed, smart little heroine, whose ensemble always includes a flashlight; a touch of gothic spookiness; a giddy sense of adventure; a mystery that's a real mystery and not a Hollywood mystery (those are solved by accidental revelations instead of deduction), and she even gets to keep driving her much-loved blue convertible, that symbol of equality and open-road freedom that has enthralled girls for three-fourths of a century.
On the other hand, once she's plunked down in La-la Land, Nancy Drew is in "Mean Girls" territory, and the filmmakers have a fair amount of fun with Nancy's Type-A personality traits and preppily old-style fashion sense. This is the too-smart, too-energetic, too-much girl who always had her hand up in class (anyone else remember the Sharon character from "My So-Called Life"?).
They even give Nancy a psychological motive for her relentless sleuthing. What, simple curiosity isn't enough?
It's a clever updating of the character, and will likely score with the intended audience, if they can be dragged away from the loud animations of summer's "blockbusters."
The only downside is a pudgy sidekick apparently intended for comedy relief: The only time Nancy is caught at a loss for words is when she's asked why she allows him to hang around. The polite Nancy Drew-like answer would have been, "He's lonely too," while the real-world answer would be, "The producers insisted on it."
This is only the third time Nancy Drew has been filmed, after the frankly dreadful Pamela Sue Martin TV shows of the '70s and the frankly wonderful Bonita Granville three-reelers of the late '30s (all of which were released this week on DVD).
The weight of this new film version falls squarely on the matchstick shoulders of Emma Roberts (niece of Julia), who at 16 seems a bit young to be playing Nancy Drew, but there are sequels in the works. She's thoroughly delightful, funny and heroic in the role, playing someone who's both fearless and a fussbudget. She does great things for penny loafers and plaid.
There probably aren't many girls around today who refer to their cars as "roadsters," though.