“Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase” Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures, 89 Minutes, Rated PG, Released March 15, 2019:
Nancy Drew has changed.
There’s a weird vibe coming from the new “Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase” that psudonymous author Carolyn Keene never put into the the original mysteries. This isn’t your grandmother’s teenaged girl detective, or even your mother’s. Under normal circumstances, an occasional update for an antiquated character isn’t a bad idea. But in this picture, it’s only the beginning of the problem.
In “The Hidden Staircase,” Nancy Drew and her father Carson have recently moved from Chicago to the small, bucolic community of River Heights. A crusading attorney, Carson Drew wanted to leave the big city after the death of his civil rights activist wife because “everything in the city reminds me of her”...which is precisely the reason daughter Nancy wanted to stay.
While Carson seems to have adjusted well to small town life, daughter Nancy is having problems fitting in. Bored with small town life, ostracized by the more affluent and socially-popular clique at school, Nancy’s befriended the nerdish but resourceful fellow social outcasts Beth and George (George is a girl).
While exacting revenge for a cruel social prank played by a vain and popular fellow student on the shy and insecure Beth, Nancy’s arrested by the local police chief. And during her interactions with the local police, Nancy meets the elderly Flora, an octogenarian former burlesque queen troubled with a possible ghostly manifestation in her mansion.
When the elderly Flora is dismissed by the police chief as...well, addled, Nancy decides to investigate the haunting herself. And with her already-overactive imagination and a demonstrable aptitude for chaos, the combination of Nancy Drew and ghosts will undoubtedly be a recipe for trouble.
Vaguely reminiscent of the haunted house comedies such as “Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow” produced for teenagers by the American International Pictures studios during the 1950s and 1960s, “Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase” tries to update the venerable teen detective from her roots in post-depression 1930s America and make her relevant to the present day.
The picture aims for 2019 but instead effectively bullseyes the mid-1980s, a revelation made plain by the end of the opening credits, which show Nancy skateboarding home from school while the soundtrack blares the song “More Than Just a Girl.” The River Heights community of the novels seems more or less intact, a insulated town where you might expect Wally and the Beaver to turn up. An inevitable result is that the new Nancy Drew becomes an anachronism in her own movie before the story even begins to unfold.
Veering uncomfortably from comedy to drama with some social commentary thrown in, “Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase” careens all over the emotional spectrum, inconsistent in tone and uneven in drama. The audience never learns which effect director Katt Shea is shooting for, or even which genre. Even as a mystery, the movie is worthless--every time a clue is revealed, the information is scuttled and negated almost instantly by a preposterous new plot development.
Produced by comedian Ellen DeGeneres, “Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase” shares many of the characteristics of an Ellen DeGeneres comedy routine--part farce, part irony, and part social commentary, simultaneously both comic and serious in concept and delivery. It’s a combination which might work well for a stand-up routine, but a disastrous formula for a persuasive dramatic narrative. Introducing comedic elements to dramatic scenes and vice-versa, the picture changes gears, and genres, so often that the result is a bewildering and often irritating mess.
Writers Nina Fiore and John Herrera try to pass Nancy Drew off as a typical American teenager, but nobody seems to know anything about typical people, or how they interact with each other. This might be the first motion picture mystery in which a ghostly apparition is explained not by optical trickery but by controlled doses of hallucinogenic spices, which are then fed in overdose quantities to the villain before the film's end.
On top of that, the picture is frequently mean-spirited: Indifferent to personal responsibility, contemptful of authority, this is a Nancy Drew who’ll combat a bully by becoming a bigger bully, break into a home when she’s curious about what’s inside, walk away from a court-ordered work detail because she’s bored, or steal a car when she wants to take a drive with a friend.
While the studio’s publicity machine describes their title character as intelligent, independent, and assertive, a clinician might better diagnose this Nancy Drew as troubled and aggressive, “acting out” her grief and frustrations. In real life, the ingenue sleuth would in juvenile detention within the first twenty minutes of the picture. And what in the world is going on with the Nick-and-Nora flirtation between school-age Nancy and the adult police deputy?
At age 17, actress Sophia Lillis has star quality to spare, a rare combination of the charismatic appeal of both a late Disney-era Hayley Mills and the young Jane Fonda. The breakout star of last summer’s hit adaptation of Stephen King’s novel “It” and a working actress since the age of seven, Lillis possesses charisma, poise, screen presence, and an ability to command the viewer’s attention and interest. That’s a recipe for stardom, and this young performer undoubtedly has a bright future in movies. But she’s going to have to learn to avoid projects like “Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase.” Lillis would make a better Trixie Belden than Nancy Drew anyway.
Also featuring performances by octogenarian Linda Lavin as the octogenarian Flora and Colin Ferrell-lookalike Sam Trammell as Carson Drew, “Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase” has earned some surprisingly strong reviews from critics, including a 70% approval rating from Rotten Tomatoes and 55% from Metacritic. But the picture is hardly even showing a pulse in ticket sales, earning too little in receipts to appear on the Box Office Mojo Top 40.
Running 89 minutes which seem a lot longer, “Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase” somehow got away with PG rating from the MPAA, which cited scenes of peril, suggestive material, thematic elements, and language.