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River Heights meets Mulholland Drive, to lackluster effect, in “Nancy Drew.” The beloved amateur sleuth’s first big-screen appearance in nearly 70 years is not devoid of affection for the mystery books that have engaged generations of young girls, but the culture-clash procedural, which brings the small-town teen to big bad Hollywood, feels more perfunctory than inspired. If the feature sparks a run on the books, it will be the result of tween-targeted marketing centering on Nickelodeon star Emma Roberts; word-of-mouth among young moviegoers, their mothers and grandmothers isn’t likely to solve this case at the boxoffice.
Conceived, written and edited by committee under the pseudonymous authorship of Carolyn Keene, the book series has undergone its fair share of revisions and facelifts since first publication in 1930. It’s hardly sacred literature that shouldn’t be messed with, yet the source material’s particular resonance remains elusive in this 21st century update.
Director Andrew Fleming and co-scripter Tiffany Paulsen have set up a familiar new-girl-in-school scenario for Nancy, overshadowing the mystery that should be the story’s engine. Their screenplay isn’t quite parody, but it’s larded with enough self-conscious deadpan nods to the genre to make it something less than sincere. They’ve put Nancy (a perennial 18-year-old for decades) back in high school at 16 — all the better for setting her in contrived opposition to fashion-slave Los Angeles mean girls (Daniella Monet, Kelly Vitz), while best friends George and Bess are reduced to bit parts back in stateless River Heights. Vague business has brought her widowed attorney father (Tate Donovan) to Los Angeles, where Nancy gets busy suggesting improvements to the principal of Hollywood High and delving into a movieland mystery.
The unsolved case from the annals of Hollywood dates way back to the glamorous days of 1981, when actress Dehlia Draycott (Laura Elena Harring) died after a five-month disappearance. Having rented the decrepit mansion where Dehlia lived (nice work by production designer Tony Fanning), Nancy can avail herself of an attic full of memorabilia, not to mention film footage and a projector, all under the disquieting eye of “strange caretaker” Leshing (Marshall Bell). Smitten 12-year-old Corky (Josh Flitter) lends his help, as does Ned Nickerson (Max Thieriot), who arrives from back home to deliver Nancy’s nifty blue convertible and — in the film’s only emotionally convincing performance — to confront his feelings for his favorite sleuth.
With an iBook and a vintage roadster at her disposal, Nancy would seem to have the best of both worlds. But the movie suffers from a split personality that proves enervating. The idea of playing up Nancy’s retro qualities goes only so far, and reimagining her as a square do-gooder feels forced — and misses the point about the unfussy intelligence that has made the character a keeper for most of a century.
As the quick-thinking, fearless title character, Roberts (“Unfabulous”) conveys the required poise and self-confidence but never overcomes a certain blankness. Helmer Fleming (“Dick”) struggles to generate human chemistry within the tween-movie formula. Often the most expressive onscreen elements are the costumes by Jeffrey Kurland, who dressed Roberts’ Aunt Julia in “Erin Brockovich” and “Ocean’s Eleven,” and who has a good deal of character-defining fun here.
The Hollywood-lore angle is more intriguing than the high-school scenario, and older viewers might enjoy the film references, if only because they’re diversions from the listless action. Harring’s presence pays homage to David Lynch’s brilliant R-rated twist on Nancy Drew in “Mulholland Drive”; there are broad allusions to “Chinatown”; and when Nancy tracks down a crucial figure (Rachael Leigh Cook) in the Draycott mystery, she visits an apartment building that will recall last year’s “Hollywoodland.” Adam Goldberg and an uncredited Bruce Willis provide all-too-fleeting film-within-the-film cameos, while Barry Bostwick delivers a tasty turn as a super-lawyer to the stars.
Late-in-the-proceedings tension does materialize, but under the helm of Fleming and DP Alexander Gruszynski, most of the action sequences unfold with numbing indifference, while Ralph Sall’s original score is far more interesting than his soundtrack of perkily predictable pop songs.
Warner Bros. Pictures
Warner Bros. Pictures presents in association with Virtual Studios a Jerry Weintraub production
Director: Andrew Fleming
Screenwriters: Andrew Fleming, Tiffany Paulsen
Story: Tiffany Paulsen
Based on characters created by: Carolyn Keene
Producer: Jerry Weintraub
Executive producers: Susan Ekins, Mark Vahradian, Benjamin Waisbren
Director of photography: Alexander Gruszynski
Production designer: Tony Fanning
Music: Ralph Sall
Co-producer: Cherylanne Martin
Costume designer: Jeffrey Kurland
Editor: Jeff Freeman
Nancy Drew: Emma Roberts
Corky: Josh Flitter
Ned Nickerson: Max Thieriot
Jane Brighton: Rachael Leigh Cook
Carson Drew: Tate Donovan
Dashiel Biedermeyer: Barry Bostwick
Inga: Daniella Monet
Barbara Barbara: Caroline Aaron
Leshing: Marshall Bell
Dehlia Draycott: Laura Elena Harring
Trish: Kelly Vitz
Landlady: Pat Carroll
Running time — 99 minutes
MPAA rating: PG
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