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The Case of the Convoluted Update

The real mystery here is how "Nancy Drew" went bad.

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It was a good idea to bring back the young sleuth Nancy Drew, the precocious, enterprising children's book character from the '30s. But it collides with a not-so-good idea, to modernize her surroundings and plot while leaving her in weird clothing — which leaves this remarkably stiff update in limbo between potential sets of fans. Tweens are unlikely to find a hero in this decidedly old-fashioned Nancy as their great-grandmothers did decades ago, and members of the older generation looking for any more substance than the nostalgia of a familiar name are likewise setting themselves up for disappointment. "Drew" became a film franchise in the '30s, when there were four such films made. By the looks of this perfunctory update, we are looking at the one and only big-screen outing for the spitfire sleuth.

Making the most of her dad's (Tate Donovan) new attorney job in Los Angeles, Nancy (Emma Roberts) arranges for the pair (her mom died long ago) to move into an empty mansion formerly occupied by Dehlia Draycott, a famous Hollywood starlet murdered on the property in the early '70s. Nancy breaks her fingers-crossed promise to her dad to "give up sleuthing" and sets about exploring the suddenly spick-and-span estate overseen by creepy caretaker Mr. Leshing (Marshall Bell). Secret passages, a projector spooled with one of Dehlia's old-time movies and plenty of "clues" send Nancy on a mission to solve the enigma of Dehlia's death and locate her undiscovered daughter, the beneficiary of Dehlia's hidden will.

At Hollywood High School, Nancy's stylish but outdated mode of dress makes her a prime target for dumb-and-dumber girlfriends Inga (Daniella Monet) and Trish (Kelly Vitz), who seem as if they stumbled on to the wrong studio lot. There are few characters more rejected by their own movie than these two examples of female teen detritus. However, Nancy suffers fools gladly, as is further evidenced by her bizarre affinity for Corky (Josh Flitter), a romantically pushy 12-year-old brother of one of the dumb girls. Much of the intended humor comes from Corky's insistent passes at Nancy that she ambivalently accepts, even in the presence of her whipped boyfriend, Ned (Max Thieriot), when he delivers Nancy's trademark blue roadster from the small town of River Heights. Thieriot plays the thankless role with poker-faced modesty that belies the subtle humiliations his character chronically suffers.

The incoherent tone of the movie swings wildly between herky-jerky car chases, melodramatic ruses and Nancy's lifesaving propensities. At one point we find her performing an emergency tracheotomy with a ballpoint pen on the throat of a suffocating partygoer. The filmmakers flagrantly overlook the fact that many parents, who grew up reading Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys, will resent the spastic storyline that bears little resemblance to any of the formulaic books. It seems the furthest thing from rocket science for a skilled screenwriter to take any one of the dozens of Nancy Drew books and adapt it for modern film audiences. Instead, co-writers Andrew Fleming (who also directed) and Tiffany Paulsen have created a Frankenstein mishmash of teen movie tropes that resembles Nancy Drew only by way of costume designer Kathy Lucas' smart designs.

Author Edward Stratemeyer's syndicate created the original series with the same original purpose of all his books — to make novels for children that would allow them to feel like grown-ups. Perhaps that desire has been lost today, with gargantuan summer movies usually intended to make us all feel like children. With the industry bent on making even adults feel dumb, good luck to any kid out there looking for smart thrills. Children's book series like The Three Investigators and Nancy Drew may not stand up as literature, but they are far more self-possessed — ethical, clever and daring — than most modern-day children's movies. It's too bad the industry got to Nancy Drew, too. (PG) 98 min. S

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