TROUBLE CITY

REVIEW: NANCY DREW

Movie ReviewsRuss FischerComment

 It’s easy to find commentary about the one-note nature of summer films. Doesn’t take a think tank to understand that May through July are given over to sixteen year old boys, with the occasional nod to 30-year old boys through a film like Ocean’s Thirteen. Counter-programming is an easy way for a studio to make a few bucks on a small-budget picture and look as if they’re branching out at the same time. So this week Warner Brothers is coughing up Nancy Drew, an after-school special with a Bruce Willis cameo*, in hopes of grabbing some dollars from young girls and their nostalgic mothers/aunts/grandparents.

Nancy Drew has gone through a lot of changes since she first appeared in 1930. Born into the loving embrace of a publishing syndicate, outlined and authored by a procession of writers under the pen name Carolyn Keene, the teen sleuth became an icon for young girls.

With a spirit of revision Hollywood understands better than most, Nancy Drew mysteries have been rewritten and updated over the years. Anachronisms are cut out, edges smoothed over. Nancy's style and vaguely old-timey appeal have remained the same, even as she's been dragged into one new decade after another. So the new Warner Brothers film, courtesy of director Andrew Fleming and co-writer Tiffany Paulson, doesn't exactly break the mold. But while it's both out of date and modern, in trying to appeal to as many young people as possible, Nancy Drew has the power to impress exactly no one.

Not that the original books were any great shakes in the morality or example setting departments. Nancy Drew is wealthy and entitled, and guises her intrusions behind the aegis of ‘doing the right thing’. So it goes here. Emma Roberts, neice of Julia, almost has the precise lack of guile to sell Nancy’s innocent and well-meaning affluence.

This version deviates farther than any rewrite to date by transplanting Nancy from her fictional home town of River Heights to Hollywood. Granted, this is meant to be a respectful nod so the story begins in her home town, where Nancy collars two thugs (Chris Kattan among them) during a church robbery. The amateur sleuth uses a combination of charm and common sense to foil the robbery, but we know that Hollywood operates by much more realistic rules, and that things will be different when she gets to the big city. Or maybe not.

Once in Hollywood, Nancy promises to stop sleuthing; her father wants her to become more 'normal'. But she'd already arranged for them to rent a house supposedly haunted by the ghost of movie star Dehlia Draycott. (Laura Harring, looking a lot like Catherine Zeta Jones in her flashbacks.)

As in every other story I’ve been able to find a synopsis for, Nancy seeks out secret passages, hidden documents and secret motivations. Made for a young audience, the plot twists are never meant to be surprising to an adult audience. But the film’s events don’t have to be this loud and grating; the feel needn’t be so much like the vapid teen movies polluting Disney’s cable channel.

The worst example of that approach is a trio of awful teens that pollute every scene in which they appear. Josh Flitter (soon to be seen alongside master hack Robin Williams in License To Wed) is consistently unbearable as Corky, the self-appointed sidekick who struts like a wiseguy and loudly wonders what’s going on in the movie around him. He’s like Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz brought dumbly and frighteningly to life.

Furthermore, Corky’s sister and her best friend (I happily can’t remember the character names nor the actresses responsible, and have no interest in looking them up) are shoehorned into the movie to demonstrate to young girls that you can safely ignore the cries of ignorant social harpies so long as you’re wealthy enough to dress really well and live in a cool rented mansion. In the process they dress as if they were standing next to the Olson twins when Ashley finally ate a sandwich, causing her body to explosively rebel and Mary Kate to go super-nova in sympathetic resonance.

Characters like these, along with the people Nancy helps throughout the film, are meant to contribute to a message of understanding, patience and tolerance. Great. But this messenger doesn’t have to sacrifice or compromise to come to that understanding. She smugly waits for the rest of us to catch up. “Yeah, I’m better than most people, but I knew that all along. Now you do, too.”

4 out of 10

*Oh, right, the Willis cameo. Nancy stumbles onto a film set, where she quickly schools the bumbling director (Adam Goldberg), to Bruce's amusement. It would be less ironic if you didn't feel as if Fleming was commenting on his own filmmaking process.