Making a resolutely old-fashioned character like Nancy Drew seem "hip" enough for contemporary teenyboppers sounds like the worst sort of exercise in Hollywood committee thinking. Indeed, the new Nancy Drew has been given a Brady Bunch Movie-like makeover, moving the precocious sleuth from the flyover squaresville of River Heights to Hollywood, and setting her prim, do-gooder image against the trendy detachment of today's youth. And yet the fish-of-out-water gambit works anyway, thanks to the script's playful self-reflexivity and Emma Roberts' disarming zeal in the lead role. Ironically, the film doesn't lose momentum until its plucky heroine has to get down the business of solving a murder mystery. But then again, Carolyn Keene—or rather, the vast conglomeration of writers that worked under that nom de plume—wasn't exactly Agatha Christie, so the hidden passages and secret compartments on display are in keeping with the books' spirit.
After River Heights' finest detective survives yet another dangerous scrape with the criminal element, she promises her father (Tate Donovan) that her sleuthing days are over. Of course, the promise occurs after Drew has arranged their new living quarters in Los Angeles, an estate that comes with a built-in unsolved murder mystery. The house used to belong to a Hollywood actress (Mulholland Dr.'s Laura Harring) who was found dead in her pool during a party. Though she makes an effort to keep her word, Drew's curiosity gets the better of her, especially once her snooty classmates ostracize her and the mystery becomes her only good company. With help from Josh Flitter, a fellow nerdy outcast who idolizes her, Drew works on cracking the case.
The first half of Nancy Drew gets a surprising amount of mileage out of the petite detective as walking anachronism. Decked out in pristine homemade dresses, she lobbies for healthy school lunches, aces all her classes, impresses grown-ups with her rod-straight posture, and cutely refuses to drive above the posted speed limit, even when the bad guys are chasing her. Much as she's aware that the other kids resent her or make fun of her goody-goody nature, she'll happily wait for the world to conform for her, not the other way around. Once the rote mystery elements take over, the film devolves into a second-rate whodunit for kids, but even then, Roberts' irrepressible cheeriness and curiosity in the face of danger proves too adorable to resist. As role models go, she certainly beats Dennis Rodman.