Movie review: “Veronica Mars” (2014)

Veronica-Mars-TV-Show-References-Movie

“So you got a boyfriend? Where’s he? What’s he do? I’m a hedge fund manager, what’s he do?”

“He’s a hitman. He murders people for money. Though he is always looking to diversify his investments …Do you have a card?”

I had the extreme pleasure and mild surprise of watching the Veronica Mars movie in an empty theater at 7:00 a mere three days after it hit screens. I never go into a theater hoping it will be empty, but there’s always a moment of fleeting but authentic triumph when I discover that’s the case. The massive screen, reclining in a conspicuously comfy chair, my feet up on the railing, a large Icee in my hand, no restless kids, no annoying fellow patrons, no limit on air drumming or personal in-movie commentary – it’s really my ideal viewing scenario, plus and minus the presence of a “pause” button and 15 minutes of commercials/ trailers respectively. I had a nice time. When it was over, I sat, listening to the extended version of The Dandy Warhols’ iconic (in certain circles) theme song as I digested what I’d just saw. Behind me soon appeared a smiling, appealingly twee teenaged usher. “How’d you like it?” she asked me as she gloried in a complete absence of trash a couple rows back. “It was good,” I replied. “Lots of information to pack into a movie though.” She couldn’t have agreed more. “I thought it was great,” she said, then added, “I never watched the original show.”

She sounded not a little bummed at that, as well she should, while I shuddered and silently reflected on a world in which a teenaged girl was (likely) too young to have watched Veronica Mars in its original small screen incarnation. The first season of that show, which introduced the sharp-tongued teenaged sleuth and had her navigating the equally formidable halls of local justice and high school cliquery as she sought to uncover her best friend’s killer, is one for the ages. It more than holds its own against other, more traditionally celebrated modern seasons of television. Of particular merit, I thought, was the writing, smart and funny, and wise enough about teenagers and class struggles without ever turning into a treatise or a deep-dive, and the three-dimensional portrait it painted of an aggressively intelligent, restlessly curious and relatable girl and her loving father, a former police chief turned crusading, small time private investigator.

Veronica Mars the series benefitted mightily from television’s ability to continually add shading and detail to its characters rather than getting tangled in plot the way movies so often are forced to. Subsequent seasons sacrificed sharpness for sprawl, and the show lost some of its focus and serial elements as Veronica moved past the object of her initial obsession and onto another more potentially destructive one, then left high school altogether. The movie version hits so many familiar beats, but, despite the presence of a high school reunion and a seeming contractual obligation to give every available bit player a proper introduction and passing glance, it doesn’t wallow in nostalgia. Though commendable, perhaps it should have. It certainly tries everything else. This movie doesn’t adapt Veronica Mars for the screen so much as it provides a justly beloved TV heroine an overheated but strangely undercooked victory lap. As much as I enjoyed the bulk of it, it is still pure fan service. There’s far too much information to unpack otherwise, and insufficient time or, apparently, initiative on the part of the filmmakers to do so. The barrier to entry for the previously uninitiated viewer may just be too high.

It has been a while now indeed since our favorite fast-talking “lady P.I.” closed up detective shop for good after her freshman year of college. An early scene even shows her picking through a box of the tools of her former trade wistfully. Literally willed into existence by an extraordinary internet donation campaign of adoring fans, the Veronica Mars movie posits that, ten years later, Veronica (Kristen Bell, operating at the luminous intersection between extreme charm and grit) has jumped ship entirely, and is now thriving as an impressive and fast-rising recent law school grad in New York City, an entire country and a million metaphorical miles away from her hometown of Neptune, CA. If only she could fully break away. Less a community comprised of recognizable human beings than a venomous sociological experiment, Neptune seems to have somehow regressed in the intervening years. Veronica Mars the TV series always saw Neptune in general, and the petrie dish that was Neptune High School in particular, as a battleground for ongoing class warfare, but Veronica Mars the movie at times makes it seem barely inhabitable, a pretty but patently plastic den of rampant consumption, corruption and compromise. This depiction isn’t lingered over, but it still makes an impression.

Into this pit of sun, snark and snakes, the prodigal daughter reluctantly returns. Beneath the detective spine and trappings, glib, fun, often withering dialogue, peppy characterization and glossy Young Adult exterior, Veronica Mars the series was defiantly Populist at heart. The movie, which sums up three seasons of television in a 90-second preamble before diving into Veronica’s very busy weekend turned week+ back home, doesn’t have any time to play coy. Thrown back into the old Neptune stew, where the “haves” (the school’s popular clique, now all grown up and peers of their clichéd socialite parents) flaunt their wealth/status, protect it zealously and attempt to humiliate or subjugate anyone who doesn’t effortlessly fit in, Veronica’s tentativeness melts away instantly in favor of her standard issue cool resolve and resourcefulness, served with extra sass and a smile. Veronica – who, it should be noted, spent her mid-teens trailing leads, surreptitiously photographing possible criminals, breaking into their homes and charming her way out of countless jams – describes herself early on in a combination job interview/new audience intro as a reformed adrenaline junkie and speaks dismissively of “the old me”. This concept of “old me” vs. “new me” gets a lot of traction throughout, as “new” Veronica’s rosy prospects both personal (a healthy, stable relationship with objectively unobjectionable yet still controversial season three love interest Piz) and professional (an awesome new job at a top Manhattan law firm) are pitted against the fierce, insidious gravitational pull of her old haunts and former life. It rarely seems a fair fight.

The beating heart of Veronica’s drama, as ever he was, is her troubled former boyfriend Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), the volatile trust fund kid with whom she shared an adversarial relationship turned torrid love affair over the course of the series. VM mastermind Rob Thomas, here co-writing and directing, smartly uses Echolls’ lingering hold on Veronica as the impetus to drag her back to the beach, implicating him in the murder of his rock star girlfriend (one of several purported fellow Neptune alums in the film that I have little to no recollection of). Picked apart on TMZ and fueled by a steady diet of new and scandalous youtube clips, the murder becomes an instant celebrity news black hole. As Veronica walks down the hall following a wildly successful job interview in Manhattan, Logan’s voice on the other end of her cell, heard for the first time in nine years, is a siren’s call of sorts, and her need to help and defend him trumps all other concerns. How convenient that her trip home coincides with Neptune High’s 10-year reunion (at least the a-holes stayed home at mine), or that her dad is neck deep in contentious dealings with the cartoonishly corrupt local police force?

There’s just too much food to comfortably fit on this plate, possibly even for fans, and the Echolls character is exhibit A and smoking gun all rolled up into one uninspired performance. Once Veronica arrives on the West Coast and starts checking cameos off her list, Logan begins to rival her for screen time, which is a case of well-intentioned fan service inadvertently turning into a debilitating issue. Dohring plays Logan, perhaps correctly, as a man at the end of his rope, but weary instead of defiant, practically resigned instead of the simmering wildcard of fans’ memories and preamble legend. It’s a fairly listless reading of an inherently dynamic character, tonally at odds with the thrumming life he embodied over the course of the series, and no matter how rooted in truth (people can change over time, desperate times can cause you to sober up as well as drive you to drink), it drags the proceedings down.

Veronica Mars is a familiar enough murder mystery variant, appealing but unevenly executed, where the lead detective is involved with the prime suspect…and, yes, in a constant state of emotional flux as her old life and new possibilities collide. It’s an overly ambitious scenario rich with partially realized dramatic potential, but the underlying whodunit is flat, busy without being particularly involving, the cast is unveiled with a perfunctory, “oh yeah, it’s you” sort of vibe (not unlike an actual high school reunion, it should be said), the civic corruption angle is ladled on with a garden trowel instead of a paintbrush, and there’s a fraction of the romantic chemistry Logan and Veronica shared on the small screen present, just a lot of scenes of them staring into the middle distance (towards an uncertain future, get it?) and studiously avoiding physical contact. We’re supposed to feel the immense weight and push-pull as Veronica disappoints people she cares about and runs an emotional gauntlet, but there are limits even to what Bell, in the role she was born to play, can accomplish. Even more so than she was on TV, Bell is the whole show here, and she does not disappoint. As ever, I could watch her play this character all day.

Part of my misgivings about the movie surely stem from the fact, only recently realized, that the only characters I ever cared about all that much in the series were Veronica and her father, Keith (an underused, but still subtle and commanding Enrico Colantoni). Their relationship, their banter, their bond, always struck me as authentic and wonderful. TV allowed them to live, breathe and grow, and even made the also-ran characters kinda interesting too. The film constrains them to an almost unforgivable degree, turns the rest of the cast into little more than a series of brief sketches and background color, and reduces Keith to a stereotypical disapproving father prone to wondering aloud when his daughter is going to get back to her life as he prepares an endless procession of meals for one. There simply isn’t enough room or rope to accommodate everything Rob Thomas wanted Veronica Mars to be. Some ends are left hanging. Some threads should never have been introduced. Through it all, the film does retain much of the show’s essence, and at its best, brings back the best kind of memories and even evokes a few new ones. There are legitimately surprising moments, and legitimately delightful ones. I found the ending a bit troubling though satisfying.

Whether Veronica Mars is worth seeing or not depends almost entirely on your prior relationship to this character and this very specific world. If you’re enthusiastic or at least interested, you’ll probably find a lot to enjoy. I came in with high hopes but realistic expectations, and the film basically validated them. There’s nothing wrong with a victory lap. Every cultishly adored show deserves one, though they all tend to reveal the limitations inherent in this specific type of adaptation. Firefly got a pretty good one, Dead Like Me a hideously awful one, and now we have, in the flawed but fun Veronica Mars, a terribly decent one. Its fans cared enough to resurrect it through sheer force of will. Its creators cared enough to try entirely too hard to make their dreams a reality. Both are better off for the film’s existence. Everyone else will wonder what the fuss was about, or, if that sadly empty theater (plus me) is any indicator, probably not. Fans and well-wishers should pay them the ironic turn of tuning them out for a change. In the end, Veronica Mars is well worth the time of anyone who imagines it might be worthwhile to begin with. Everyone else should seek out season one first, or just go back to reality TV. Given this kind of foregone conclusion, you might well ask, what is even the point of a review like this? Just reminiscing with like minds of course. Party on, Marshmallows.

“Veronica Mars” (2014) 2.5/4 stars

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