The mystery at the heart of "Nancy Drew" leaves a lot to be desired by whodunit buffs, but they're clearly not the movie's target audience - unless they happen to be "tweener" girls, who will bond with star Emma Roberts, or their mothers, who will bask in childhood memories of being young Nancy Drew devotees.
Don't let the movie's modern-day setting fool you. This detective yarn based on the long-running series of novels about a teenage crime fighter is pure retro. You could strip out the 2007 locations and play the script in front of a painted background of 1957 without rewriting a word.
Roberts has created a Nancy Drew that is a close cousin to Addie Singer, the oh-so-wholesome girl next door she plays on the Nickelodeon series "Unfabulous." Nancy is smart without being a smart-aleck, worldly without being jaded and inquisitive without being cynical.
The story starts in the small town of River Heights. Nancy's father (Tate Donovan, TV's "The O.C.") has grown weary of her "sleuthing." He takes a temporary assignment in Los Angeles, hoping that the change in locale will cure her of her curiosity.
Fat chance. Faster than you can say "valley girl," Nancy has stumbled onto a mystery involving an old unsolved murder of a movie star (Laura Harring, TV's "The Shield," seen in flashbacks) and the victim's now-adult daughter (Rachael Leigh Cook).
The mystery takes up only a sliver of the movie. Nancy's investigation is shelved for long stretches while writer/director Andrew Fleming ("Dick") concentrates on the fish-out-of-water humor produced by the clash between hip L.A. and Nancy's throwback sense of style and manners. He also introduces a subplot that acknowledges Nancy's growing interest in boys, but tempers it with a farcical overlay.
Roberts, bless her bubbly little heart, resolutely charges through the movie with a perkiness that ignores its lack of substance. Then again, this movie isn't about context. It's light, fluffy and fun. Even the villains, once Nancy tracks them down, are goofy. All that's really asked of Roberts is that she come off as cute and friendly, and she nails both assignments.
Adults will leave the theater feeling as if they were served an appetizer instead of a meal, but the 9-to-14 girls are likely to form a quick and lasting connection with "Nancy Drew." Case closed.
2 ½ stars out of four
Starring: Emma Roberts, Tate Donovan, Rachael Leigh Cook
Directed by: Andrew Fleming
Rated PG for mild violence, young protagonist in peril and a sprinkling of profanity.