Where is Walden Media when you need it? Well, not making the latest Nancy Drew film, a Warner Bros. production starring Emma Roberts, best known as the niece of Julia Roberts and for her role in the Nickelodeon series Unfabulous. On its own terms, the film is reasonably entertaining. It contains some genuinely funny scenes and moments of suspense, and Nancy is presented, in the end, as an admirable and virtuous heroine. But the problem here is one of translation. Unlike the successful Walden Media productions that have taken cherished books such as Holes, Narnia, and Charlotte’s Web and made the literature come to life, this film version of Nancy Drew has nothing literary about it, nothing to communicate the experience of entering even a modestly rich imaginative universe.
Of course, there have been many Nancy Drew book series (and films and TV series), with later installments making Nancy younger or older or more hip. Even the original book series, issued under the pen name Carolyn Keene, was in fact written by a number of authors. But the original books were by far the best and it would be a worthy undertaking for some ambitious producer to try to bring those books, that Nancy, to life again. The focus of this film, as of all Nancy Drew stories, is a mystery; in this case, the mystery of an unsolved murder of a Hollywood star, Dehlia Draycott, into whose home Nancy and her father Carson (Tate Donovan) move after he is transferred from River Heights to L.A.
Roberts, comments, “Nancy is a timeless character and I think girls of all ages can relate to her. She’s been such a stable character, someone that we can turn to. It’s nice to have that today, especially with how things have changed so much in the world.” But that’s exactly the vision of Nancy Drew the film has neither the courage nor the imagination to depict. In this film, she’s not so much timeless as trapped in the past — in an innocent and endearing way of course.
That’s how the film attempts to translate Nancy Drew into a contemporary idiom. It transposes Nancy into the contemporary world of L.A., to which she is an outsider not just because of her roots in River Heights, an unidentified Midwestern city, but even more so because she is old-fashioned. As Roberts notes, “she still wears cute suits and neat clothes, but the story is set in modern culture.” Inexplicably, Ned, her boyfriend, is a nerd. Nancy is also attractive, smart, and athletic. In her new school in L.A., she crushes her classmates in math and track. But some of the film’s attempts at retro humor fall flat, as when Nancy quips, “downloading is cool but nothing sounds like vinyl.”
As such lines indicate, much of the film has the feel of a good-hearted spoof. Occasionally, however, the film goes beyond spoof to incongruous, arch irony. This is particularly evident in the casting of Laura Elena Harring as Dehlia, the Hollywood starlet whose unsolved murder Nancy sets about trying to solve. Harring, you will recall, starred in David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr., a film often described as Lynch’s version of Nancy Drew. Her inclusion here gives the film a discomfiting sense of irony. Nancy’s own outdated style and her somewhat churlish personality render her a natural object of mockery from Hollywood High’s finest mean girls. But in the end we can predict that Nancy will win them over just as she ends up taking the L.A. style scene by storm with an outfit she made herself based on an old pattern she inherited from her mother. It’s called The New Sincerity and, as is true of the film itself, there’s nothing much objectionable in that. But in reviving Nancy Drew, Warner Bros. has chosen to play up her now old-fashioned style, not her timeless substance. Unfortunately the silver-screen Nancy is not compelling enough to get a new generation rushing to their mom’s bookshelves.