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Published: Friday, 6/15/2007

Movie review: Nancy Drew ***

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER
<br>
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Let's get to the bottom of this.

We've got a crime to solve.

But what... shall... we... call it?

Hmmm. Wait. I know!

We shall call it, dun-dun-dun, the Mystery of the Neglected Icon and the Brain-Dead Studio Executives Who Still Don't Get Her. You heard me. Hollywood hates Nancy Drew. They misuse her and they ignore her. They run screaming from smart girls. Oh, this is gonna be good. Go! Get your flashlight and compass. This one won't wait. There is sleuthing to do! It's been 78 years since Nancy Drew hit the big screen, and girlfriend was getting dusty - you feel me? And now she's back, in Nancy Drew, opening today, in matching knee socks and a head band, looking like Martha Stewart meets Mean Girls, and, mediocrity aside, this time, our Nancy might yet stick.

First, some back story.

Nancy Drew, resourceful teen detective with a tasteful nun-out-on-the-town fashion sense, first found her way to movies in 1938, eight years after the first of 200 eventual Nancy Drew books were published. That original picture was Nancy Drew: Detective. It starred Bonita Granville, who, albeit unintentionally, gave a performance that suggested Nancy was hooked on crank. Her voice was fast, frantic, everything flying out a mile a minute. The girl was tightly wound, and that's the image that remained. Three more Nancy movies were made, the last in 1939. And though the novels have never been less than a phenomenon, Nancy's big-screen clout evaporated. She didn't reappear in a serious way until the 1970s, when Pamela Sue Martin sexed her up for television - only then, sharing time with the Hardy Boys. Bonita was a teen when she was Nancy, but Pamela was in her mid-20s.

Anyway, Warner Bros. means well. They're serious about making this a true resurrection, even if they lack the guts to pull it off. Their cast, however, is ideal. Our new Nancy Drew is played by Emma Roberts, the niece of Julia and daughter of Eric (and established Nickelodeon star); she is perky and efficient and likeable without seeming arrogant or air-headed; she's a perfect 16, curious and smart and punctual but, this being Hollywood, curious and smart and female means being a control freak - borderline self-destructive. What I'm trying to say: Nancy, as played by Roberts, relishes her quick wit, but the movie apologizes for it. She's less self-conscious than the film.

The working title, before it changed to the short and sweet one it has, was Nancy Drew and the Mystery In the Hollywood Hills, and frankly that's honest, in more ways than one. When we find Nancy, she's breaking up a burglary in her white-picketed hometown of River Heights - a suburb of Impossibleville, or perhaps a village in Vermont. Anyway, dad (Tate Donovan) has to spend some time in Los Angeles and asks Nancy to come along. Soon she's sleuthing up the mystery of a long-dead film starlet (Laura Harring, of Mulholland Dr.) - a case that requires her trusty old blue roadster, plenty of flashlight beams in creaky attics, a cameo from her blah-but true sort-of-boyfriend Ned, and even the caretaker of a mansion.

Every floor board groans.

Every mystery is a conspiracy.

So far, so very respectable.

Director Andrew Fleming, who made both the underrated comedy Dick and that dreadful remake of The In-Laws, pays generous tribute to the original novels, opening with a charming montage of the old classic book covers retooled for wood block prints, and later staging a few scenes that reenact those iconic covers. As with the original character, Nancy is deadly serious of purpose ("I don't joke," she says), and though Roberts' sincerity is not faked, gradually the film's is.

Nancy Drew, eventually, bears the fingerprints of a million hands reaching in and tinkering until the personality is smoothed over and made too-familiar and ordinary. The sleuthing, in fact, is a relatively minor part of the movie, which gradually spends more time going over tedious Nancy-fish-out of-water ground. There is a brief, deadly dull stop in TV-movie land, with a subplot about a single mother in need of a home. But then it's back to Hollywood High, where we're meant to have fun with the differences between clever Nancy and the spoiled classmates who torment her for wearing sweater sets and plaids (which are actually cooler than anything else anyone here wears). The kids are cartoons, but then the picture treats Nancy with a subtler contempt - having your act together, it says, is very freakish. And so is sincerity.

Nancy doesn't feel this way: "I like old things," she says about her clothes, and Roberts delivers the line with an uninterested air. She's got crimes to solve. But sincerity, to this movie, is mostly in quotes. It's a quality to insert, not a sensibility. What I don't understand is why Nancy Drew, if you're retooling this franchise, needs to be updated to suit modern kids. We don't require Huck Finn to smoke a joint, and we're not wondering what indiscretions await on Harry Potter's MySpace page. Nancy is timeless. Leave her to pre-war years.

On the other hand, a contemporary Nancy Drew, who likes to say stuff like "in my book, courtesy counts," is a surprisingly effective counterweight to a Britney, Paris, or Lindsay - a reminder of options that are within reach, underwear required. You've probably heard, in fact, that Nancy Drew worked here for many decades, at The Blade. Her name was Mildred Benson; she wrote the original Nancy Drew mysteries under the name Carolyn Keene. Most of the values Roberts embodies so well are what Millie gave those first books. She valued resourcefulness and curiosity. For years, I sat just a few feet from her, and many times heard her writing an obituary of someone who had not lived the life they could have. Millie had lived a big life herself.

She went on adventures.

She was a pilot.

She'd been kidnapped.

She would ask the person on the other end of the line: "Can you tell me something else about your husband?" But she would inevitably get frustrated. No one lived as fully as she had lived. If she saw this new Nancy Drew, I imagine, she'd admire Roberts, but she'd wonder why Nancy was even socializing with these criminally bored teens.

Book 'em, Nancy.

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.com or 419-724-6117.



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