“She Who Must Not Be Named” and I spent an enjoyable couple of hours yesterday watching Nancy Drew. I had seen a couple of the old Thirties films starring Bonita Granville, but hadn’t paid them much attention and don’t remember them well. I completely missed the TV series, and of course I had never read the books produced by the ink-stained wretches at the Stratemeyer Syndicate [although I did avidly read the Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, Frank Armstrong, the Motorboat Boys, and other such nonsense]. So I was familiar with the tropes of the genre and wasn’t expecting much. Not so “She”. As a young girl she had devoured the Drew canon and was primed for the experience, and she wasn’t disappointed. I have seldom seen her enjoy a film so much as this. She wasn’t the only one. Most of the audience was women accompanied by girl children and they gave the film a standing ovation at the end. Talk about a chick flick.
I enjoyed it too, but distanced myself by viewing it as a satire, both on the conventions of syndicated youth stories and on today’s teen and Hollywood culture. There are a number of knowing digs at both – at one point when the plot takes a particularly illogical turn, one of the characters (in best post-modern style) comments, “that was non-linear”. On another occasion Nancy wanders into a film shoot and speaks so sensibly in the midst of chaos that Bruce Willis [in a cameo] asks her to direct the movie, promising to get rid of the current overwrought director “in a second.” There is even a sly reference to the shopping scene in “Pretty Woman”.
The basic dramatic device used is the “fish out of water” scenario, which places old-fashioned Nancy Drew in perplexing situations when she confronts contemporary California culture. Nancy (Emma Roberts – Eric’s daughter, Julia’s niece) comes from a small town that still retains the old thirties-forties cultural styles of dress, speech, and comportment. She is unfailingly polite in dealing with adults, even criminals; she drives a “roadster” and refuses to exceed the speed limit; her relationship with her doting boyfriend, Ned (Max Thieriot) is chaste and respectful. What a relief! In that world everything revolves around Nancy -- even adult authorities defer to her judgment and criminals actually thank her for catching them. Then her father (Tate Donovan) takes a job in Los Angeles, and suddenly Nancy is plunged into the Twenty-First Century. Hilarity ensues.
Nancy’s father had, typically, allowed her to choose where they would live in L.A. and, naturally, she chose a house with a mystery attached. It had once belonged to an old movie star from the 1970’s [Oh, how old that makes me feel!) who had died under mysterious circumstances. The house set is filled with visual references to “Sunset Boulevard” and perhaps to “Rebel Without a Cause” [which was partly filmed on the same location]. Tension is provided by the fact that Nancy has promised her dad to stop “sleuthing.” Of course Nancy is unable to resist investigating the mystery and the plot unfolds cliché after cliché. There is the first day at school with the mean girls, the creepy caretaker, the evil big-shot, the SUV-driving thugs, the damsel in distress. Of course super-competent Nancy easily conquers all. No surprises, lots of coincidences, no character development to speak of, no real sense of danger, a script filled with illogical inconsistencies -- who cares? It is a romp. Miss Roberts as Nancy is a refreshing screen presence – lovely, feminine, polite, smart, and respectful toward others – and there are some really nice performances by Pat Carroll, Barry Bostwick, and especially Josh Flitter who adds a zany thread as a short, fat twelve-year-old would-be lothario.
For all its silliness the whole thing worked, and worked well, as light entertainment. In this age of assaultive media it was really nice to sit through a film that was not designed to offend or shock the audience, that didn’t degenerate into a political rant; a youth-oriented flick that did not make adults look like fools, and a story of female empowerment that did not denigrate men. That is worth something…, a lot.
I understand that there is at least one sequel being planned. I sure hope so, and so does “She”. We’ll pay to see it gladly.