The appearance of a Nancy Drew movie in 2007, a full 73 years after "The Mystery of the Old Clock " was published, begs a question: How ya gonna keep your kids in River Heights when they've already seen Hogwarts -- and Middle Earth and Narnia and all the other shiny make-believe palaces of modern moviegoing?
Credit "Nancy Drew " with trying, at least. The new film dives bravely into the abyss between hip and retro, earnest and (air-quotes) ironic, and promptly loses its way. The movie's fodder for tweener girls with indiscriminate Nick TV addictions, but there's just enough wit on display to make you realize it could have been worse.
The problem is that the beloved teen sleuth, familiar from umpteen mystery novels written by "Carolyn Keene" (a pseudonym for at least 10 underpaid writers employed over the years by publisher Edward Stratemeyer ), is not now nor ever has been cool. She's a holdover from the days when pep and stick-to-itiveness were positive qualities in a girl, rather than attitude, wardrobe, and the best cellphone dad's money can buy.
The people behind "Nancy Drew," director Andrew Fleming and his co-writer Tiffany Paulsen , are aware that time and culture have passed their heroine by. They try to make the most of it, shipping Nancy (Emma Roberts , daughter of Eric, niece of Julia, and star of Nickelodeon's "Unfabulous ") from squeaky-clean River Heights to bad old Los Angeles in the early scenes. There her sensible pullovers and businesslike demeanor render Nancy a freak to the mean girls and everyone else in school. She has an entire cafeteria table to herself; whatever she's got, the other kids are afraid it's catching.
The joke is that Nancy barely notices, so self-assured is she and so caught up in solving the mystery of the mansion she and her father (Tate Donovan ) are renting. This involves the ghost of a legendary movie star (Laura Elena Harring ) and it delivers the prerequisite secret passageways, scary caretakers, purloined wills, and villains who explain far too much while holding the heroine at gunpoint.
It's strictly B-movie stuff, no different from the old Bonita Granville "Nancy Drew" movies of the late ' 30s or the Pamela Sue Martin TV series of the ' 70s in sophistication and production quality. Purists will be glad to know the family cook, Hannah (Monica Parker ), travels with the Drews to LA, followed by Ned Nickerson (Max Theriot ) in Nancy's blue roadster, a zippy runabout from some alternate universe where the 1930s never ended.
Roberts is pleasant enough but, like her fellow TV-bred teen stars, there's not a lot of there yet, let alone enough to suggest a corn-fed Sherlock Holmes. Still, the movie has fun with the culture clash between this living American Girl doll and her sold-out, sexualized peers. "OMG, I'm sitting next to Martha Stewart ," one girl text-messages, while another sniffs, "Penny loafers -- did your podiatrist recommend them or are you being ironic?"
"Nancy Drew" has the nerve to suggest that sincerity just might be the next youth craze (as if), even while poking gentle fun at its heroine's more obsessive qualities. Maybe she does carry rappelling line in her purse, but so what? It's not every teenager who can perform a tracheotomy on a moment's notice. "Anyone can learn emergency medical procedures," Nancy chirps. Are you taking notes, girls?