Lower your expectations and “Nancy Drew” may keep you awake. But if you expect more from the folks in front of and behind the camera, it’s too often a snooze.
Andrew Fleming, the writer-director responsible for a witty Watergate spoof (“Dick”) and a clever teenage-witchcraft fantasy (“The Craft”), seemed almost typecast as the filmmaker most likely to bring this 1930s amateur sleuth into the 21st Century.
In the opening scenes, Fleming seems to have grasped the problem of updating Nancy, by both keeping her squeaky-clean teenage image (the opening scenes are set in a 1950s-like town called River Heights) and introducing her to more challenging mysteries (Nancy and her father quickly relocate to modern Los Angeles).
Emma Roberts, daughter of an Oscar nominee (Eric Roberts) and niece of an Oscar winner (Julia Roberts), plays Nancy and instantly demonstrates that acting talent does indeed run in the family. Emma turns the movie’s fish-out-of-water scenario on its head, embracing Nancy’s fearlessness and limitless curiosity, which she uses to combat Hollywood High’s bewildered mean girls.
Emma’s refreshingly oblivious Nancy doesn’t know the meaning of peer pressure or fashion sense, and soon her old-fashioned approach gets her dubbed an apostle of “the new sincerity.” It also earns her the devotion of a 12-year-old scamp, Corky (Josh Flitter), and her longtime boyfriend, Ned (Max Thieriot).
Tate Donovan plays her protective father, who insists that Nancy stop playing detective once they arrive at their new home. But Nancy can’t resist the opportunity to solve an ancient Hollywood mystery — the unexplained death of a famous actress, Dehlia Draycott (Laura Harring) — that’s tied to the spooky mansion where she and her father are living.
Nancy is always up for a mystery, but she doesn’t know what to do with Ned. Neither does the movie (his rivalry with Corky is introduced and then abandoned). Too bad, because Thierot, who was so good as Billy Bob Thornton’s son in “The Astronaut Farmer,” has some sly moments as a kid who is beginning to accept his role as the less aggressive, more infatuated half of a couple that may not last.
The script by Fleming and Tiffany Paulsen is based on characters created in 1929 by Mildred Wirt Benson (aka Carolyn Keene), who died five years ago, and Edward Stratemeyer, who also created The Hardy Boys before he died in 1930. Several forgotten movie versions appeared in 1938-39, starring Bonita Granville and directed by William Clemens.
The new “Nancy Drew” is slicker and more expensive than the Granville pictures, which were produced for a pittance and were often just 60 minutes long. But once a familiar plot is set in motion, with Barry Bostwick, Rachael Leigh Cook and Marshall Bell all contributing key parts, the movie reverts to action scenes, a bomb explosion and a puzzle-solving finale that’s neither interesting nor convincing.
The clashing-cultures shtick helps to give a lift to the first half. But the rest of Fleming’s “Nancy Drew” feels like a relic from another era: the dispensable bottom half of a double feature.