Silver Screen: Veronica Mars ***1/2
The minor hubbub surrounding Veronica Mars has less to do with the movie itself than its means of production. The cult-favorite TV show was cancelled after three seasons back in 2007, but the series’ enthusiastic fanbase ponied up millions of dollars on Kickstarter to make it the first crowd-funded major motion picture. Might this be the new model for medium-scale filmmaking, changing the process of both fundraising and distribution? (The movie is playing in a couple hundred theaters simultaneous to its release on Video on Demand.)
Lost in all this industry talk is the question: Is the movie actually any good, and would anyone who didn’t watch the low-rated show even care?
The TV incarnation of Veronica Mars was a teen-centric show with significant appeal beyond its target demographic. The first season found former popular girl Veronica on a one-woman quest to discover who murdered her best friend (Amanda Seyfried). Along the way, the new-millennium Nancy Drew solved other minor mysteries using the street smarts she learned from her single father Keith (Enrico Colantoni), the disgraced town sheriff turned private investigator.
The series had a lot going for it, including sharp writing and quippy dialogue by series creator Rob Thomas, not to mention an ace cast that included several soon-to-be stars as well as established character actors like Colantoni and Ken Marino. But the primary appeal was Veronica, a too-rare phenomenon: a smart, independent, and believable teen-girl protagonist. Creator Thomas never played down star Kristen Bell’s considerable beauty, yet Veronica was a plausible outsider neither ashamed of nor defined by her femininity. She’s tough, but in a scrappy, self-determined way, not a hyperbolic ass-kicking power fantasy like her most obvious counterpart, TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The show fit snugly into a noirish genre template without constraining the characters by turning them into types, and the fantastic Bell led the charge.
The big-screen version of Veronica Mars finds our gal far away from her fictional seaside hometown of Neptune, California. She’s fresh out of law school and interviewing for a prestigious job when she gets word from home that her ex-boyfriend, troubled rich kid Logan (Jason Dohring), has been accused of murdering his pop-star girlfriend. She returns to Neptune ostensibly for a weekend trip to give Logan free legal advice, but when the stories she hears don’t match the evidence at hand, Veronica can’t help but let her old P.I. instincts kick in, much to the chagrin of her father. She enlists the help of her old crew (including series regulars Percy Daggs III and Tina Majorino), and as she digs deeper Veronica uncovers a mystery dating back to their high-school days.
Fans of the show take heart: Veronica’s still got it. The characters fall back into their natural rhythms, yet feel like they’ve evolved during the intervening years. Veronica is a little wiser, Logan more calm and mature, although thankfully comic-relief standby Dick Casablancas (the hilarious Ryan Hanson, also of Party Down) hasn’t changed in the slightest and remains a scene-stealer.
Thomas makes almost no concessions to the shift from small to big screen. At best the movie version of Veronica Mars plays like a slightly grandiose episode of the show, the plot almost a season’s worth of story jammed into an hour and forty-five minutes. It’s fluid and mostly unhurried, although the slight rush doesn’t allow for the mystery to progress at quite a natural pace, with one clue leading to the next. Veronica has to solve this one quickly, before the credits start to roll on her. This makes the movie a little ungainly, some kind of hybrid half-movie, half-TV-show beast, but the series’s plots, while solid, were always secondary to character and dialogue.
Those unfamiliar with the show may have a difficult time catching up, as Thomas makes little concession to them. The movie begins with a dump of expository narration intended to bring newbies up to speed, but it’s cursory and better suited as a recap than an introduction. Thomas has clearly decided to proceed by giving those who paid into the Kickstarter fund what they wanted rather than trying to expand the fanbase with a more standalone story and conventionally cinematic approach. It’s not necessarily a good or bad decision, but it is slightly limiting— much better, however, than trying to do both at the same time and succeeding at neither. Still, there’s plenty for new viewers to enjoy, and it might well prompt some to go back and watch the old episodes, which would indeed be a worthwhile investment of time.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.