Invented in 1930 by the same Stratemeyer syndicate that gave the world Tom Swift and the Hardy Boys, the bold, intelligent, and well brought up Nancy sleuthed her way through some 60 mystery novels—motoring around the Midwestern countryside in a blue roadster, amazing school chums with her perspicuity, and inspiring an international fan base whose self-identified members range from Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Barbara Walters to Fran Lebowitz and Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
An eternal 16 until changes in the motor vehicles code mandated she turn 18, Nancy lived in Oedipal bliss with a doting father—mom having died long before—and kept company with an equally adoring, somewhat dim, beau. The last time Warners brought Nancy to the screen, in the person of Bonita Granville, she was a scatterbrained chatterbox; in her current incarnation, played by Emma Roberts (niece of Julia), she's a perky, politely eye-rolling little know-it-all who, although a senior in high school, looks 14 and has the personality of an obnoxious, if fearless, 12-year-old.
This tweener goddess—a virtual Batcave of handy accessories packed in her shoulder bag—may prove too annoying for general audiences, particularly as the deglamorized Roberts plays her comically straight. The movie derives much of its humor from the spectacle of Nancy's single-minded rectitude once she and dad (Tate Donovan) relocate from River Heights to a spooky old mansion in the Hollywood Hills where, 25 years before, the star Dehlia Draycott met her mysterious demise. Nancy plunges headlong into that mystery as well as the world of Hollywood High; there, she is the enigma, astounding the resident mean girls with her bulletproof Teflon dweebishness.
A former child actor, Fleming has worked this territory before. Set in an L.A. parochial school and featuring a coven of teenage witches, The Craft (1996) was a promising riot grrrl saga that midway through went all, like, moralistic; even funnier than it was puerile, Dick (1999) imagined the Nixon presidency brought down by a pair of ecstatically simpering 15-year-old ninnies (Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams). High school crowd scenes bring out the best in Fleming's mise-en-scene—the frame lovingly packed with bellicose representatives of every imaginable adolescent subculture.
Like Dick, if not to as richly comic effect, Nancy Drew practices a form of dual address. Jokes like the girl detective's solemn announcement that she "recently discovered movies aren't shot from beginning to end" or casting Mulholland Dr. amnesiac Laura Elena Harring as the resident dead movie star, are launched into a void well above the target audience's head. So too, Nancy's pedantic concern with historical anachronism—especially since she herself is a walking time capsule. ("Nothing sounds like vinyl," she firmly declares at the onset of her suitably retro birthday party.)
In some respects, Fleming's two-track approach recalls the old Jay Ward cartoons—Crusader Rabbit, Rocky and Bullwinkle, George of the Jungle et al. Nancy herself resembles one of Ward's heroic nerds or super-smarties, spreading goodness as she single-handedly unravels a sinister cabal. Her character is inoculated against insufferability by the addition of a squat amorous 12-year-old (Josh Flitter), playing a whiny Sancho Panza to Nancy's brainiac Quixote. "I wonder who tried to kill us?" she muses after a speeding SUV nearly flattens them. "I'm wondering too," he replies. "In fact, I'm kind of freaking out about it."
Unavoidably arch but essentially playful in its wit, Nancy Drew neither wears out its welcome nor compromises its heroine. Nancy is unstoppable. By the movie's end, her trademark penny loafers and Sandra Dee outfits have been officially pronounced fashionable—"the new sincerity." That's pretty much the idea of this 12-year-old superheroine, quotation marks and all.