What were you like as a girl, they like to ask me, and often I answer back: I think you mean what did I like as a girl. The answer to that, is, of course, I liked The Baby-Sitters Club and I liked the Christmas scenes in the Little House on the Prairie books and I loved, by far, any book about a girl who was a little bit different and who succeeded with any measure of aplomb. But not Nancy Drew. By the time I got around to her she had been worked over by a couple of generations of ghostwriters, and honestly, was kind of a bore. It is a surprise, then, that in the year two thousand and seven I am here and she is on my movie screen. It is awkward and we are not sure what to say to each other.
Perhaps a better mystery for Nancy would have been The Case of Am I Here Ironically or Are You Feeling Nostalgic? Because had that been clarified, I think a real ball could have been had with the world-building. Either Nancy exists in that New Brady Bunch place where she much prefers land lines to cellular telephones or actually she is a sharp, witty, Veronica Mars-without-the-venom. Instead what we get is a barely-sketched sort of character, a girl who likes dressing oddly, is eerily polite, and who does Internet Research on an iBook (how totally 2003!). On top of all that, she says adorably quirky things and, bless her heart, believes in right and wrong. Meanwhile, the other children of Nancy Drew act in the now-canonical school of Disney TV Movie Acting, where you are snarky to a point and your idea of fashion sense is accessory + accessory + accessory (Claudia Kishi would be proud). Their jibes and barbs and who-me's! fall terribly, terribly flat in front of Nancy, and what about us? Are we on her side, are we hoping this fish out of water teaches the land a lesson, or do we just shake our head at how silly these children are, all, together? Is Nancy herself willing us all into adulthood?
So: do I care, and in addition, would me as a girl have even liked this movie? And I just feel like okay first of all there's no way to tell what with how I lost my time machine and in addition to that I'm pretty sure my past self WOULD NOT TOLERATE her future self asking such DUMB QUESTIONS. But secondly, I think, I don't think so. Maybe if director slash writer Andrew Fleming had come up with a good solid mystery, something with a few more twists and turns and way fewer archetypes (I'm sorry, nods to the source material). Maybe if the mystery was something a little more engaging than this apparent reject from the Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen Mysteries video series. Even, maybe, if the mystery was something that didn't so bizarrely advocate breaking adoption privacy laws. Alas, however: I definitely would have seen it anyway, because it's rated PG.
Nancy Drew is an amusing film in spite of the fact that its makers mostly decline to commit to their best ideas. The picture mainly draws on the prim, old timey charm of what I understand to be the latter day interpretation of the title character and her milieu, but falls short when it attempts to make sense of her somewhat anachronistic nature by dropping her into a standard "fish out of water" narrative.
That storyline could've worked only if the writers, casting director, and costume designers had actually bothered to make its bratty Los Angeles teens seem even remotely authentic. The movie would have been far more entertaining and thoughtful if Nancy was taken out of hey idyllic midwestern hometown and dropped into the middle of a Lauren Greenfield pictorial, or at least a variation on Tina Fey's script for Mean Girls. The dim-witted girls who tease Nancy throughout the picture are sitcom cliches from the 80s, but not recognizable human beings. Instead of looking and acting as though they just stepped through a time warp on the set of Blossom, these girls should have been a pointed contrast with Nancy's conservative aesthetic and do-gooder spirit. The script barely needed to change to reflect this -- the "bad girl" characters are already vapid and obsessed with image, so if the costume designers had simply gone through the effort of making them look like Cory Kennedy or something, it would've been at least 20% better. The filmmakers apparently had no faith that their young viewers would side with Nancy, and chose to highlight her impeccable fashion sense by dressing Emma Roberts in a succession of amazing quasi-vintage outfits whilst every other girl in the film is forced to appear as an over-accessorized frump. It just never rings true that a girl as gorgeous, talented, and stylish as Nancy would be any kind of social pariah.
Though most of the film is spent indulging in a shockingly substandard mystery plot, its best moments come when it foregrounds the ways in which Nancy pretends to be oblivious to the interests of the movie's two young male leads. She's got feelings for her hometown pal Ned Nickerson, a repressed, mild-mannered guy who is crazy about Nancy, but is consistently cock-blocked by life and is mostly unaware that his attraction is reciprocated. This relationship is contrasted with her platonic friendship with a pathetic comic relief character named Corky, who is basically like a retarded version of Little Pete crossed with the Fonz. Whereas Ned is stoic and reserved, Corky is all dumb bravado and smarm. He hits on Nancy in the stupidest ways possible, and avoids getting thoroughly embarrassed only because she is so unwaveringly polite. Neither guy gets the girl in the end. She has sublimated all of her sexuality into her perfectionism and obsession with sleuthing, and both men are weak suitors who are clearly attracted to Nancy for her sexlessness, abstract purity, and assertive demeanor. To me, this is the most fascinating element of the film, perhaps because I certainly understand the appeal of a girl like Nancy, and would've enjoyed a story that spent more time dealing with the reasons why some young men go for the Little Miss Perfect type.
It's never a good sign when your childhood (or worse, your parents' or even grandparents') is mined for summer movie fodder. Although, with the Fantastic Four and Transformers returning to screens, it couldn't hurt to go ahead and sneak Nancy Drew in to the schedule as well. For a book series that's been continually published and updated since 1930, it only stands to reason that another incarnation is no threat to the series' consistency. The only constant is that Nancy Drew is a plucky teenage girl who likes to solve crimes, much to the amusement of local law enforcement.
What doesn't work is the tone of the film. The update is half-formed because they can't decide if they want Nancy to be a throwback or just an oddball. Nancy's foils (two catty post-Paris classmates) are every bit as unrealistic as she is, but this is a movie filled with short-hand characterization and "that's the strange caretaker" introductions. The soundtrack seems to have originated from someone in the marketing department hitting shuffle on their iPod (what with Apple products appearing ubiquitously in the film) and going with the first 15 songs that came up. The clothing choices, meant to depict a decadently image-conscious L. A. trendiness, are highly questionable, save for the smartly retro looks of Nancy and her father and Ned's earnest Midwest sensibility. They don't really suit the context, but they look great.
This is not to say the film is without merit. I'm all for the over-arching (if not a little cliched by now) message that being different is cool; that fitting in, especially in high school, is an atrocious imposition. Add to that Emma Roberts displaying a great deal of wit and charm in the title role, so much so that she brightly outshines her uneven supporting cast (Barry Bostwick, Tate Donovan, Chris Kattan). Even through the mess of the non-mystery she brings levity to the film and hits the perfect note when delivering such plain-spoken lines as, "I wonder who's trying to kill me," or when instructing party-goers on the proper method for performing an emergency tracheotomy, one of the most successful of the film's random but endearingly comic set pieces. The dry dialogue and Roberts' confident delivery make for a highly entertaining character in what is an otherwise forgettable movie, one that leaves several mysteries unsolved:
* Why would a kid growing up in L.A. dress and talk like he's from Jersey?
* How old is Nancy supposed to be, and why do they let her drive a car?
* Do any pretty young crime-fighters use PCs?
* Why weren't there any kids in the theater?
* Chris Kattan? Really?
* And, finally, why did everyone at work give me that look when I asked if they wanted to see this with me? I mean, honestly, it's not as if I asked them to go see Hostel Part II.