Sunday, March 23, 2014

Veronica Mars: You Can Go Home Again

Kristen Bell in Veronica Mars, now in theatres (Photo: Robert Voet/Warner Bros. Entertainment)

Last Friday, the much-anticipated Veronica Mars film appeared in movie theatres, Video on Demand, and for direct download on iTunes and Amazon. Last March, when series creator Rob Thomas' famous Kickstarter campaign was in full swing, I expressed some mixed feelings about the project: both because the strength of the TV series was always so dependent on the television format, and because its third (and final) season had demonstrated some real signs of decline. Still, whatever reservations I may have had, I eagerly marked March 14, 2014 on my calendar, and, with my expectations not-so-firmly in check, couldn't help counting the days until the film's release. The verdict? As neo-noir filmmaking goes, this isn't The Usual Suspects; despite the ten-year high school reunion plot element, it isn't even Grosse Pointe Blank. What it is is Veronica Marssimpliciter. And for this long-time fan, that turned out to be more than enough.  

The film opens with a two minute reprise of everything fans already know and love about the story so far, and it does a pretty good job of revisiting the original show's three seasons  especially the first  without spoiling it entirely for those who might go from the movie back to the series. We find Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell), nine years later, as a recent law school graduate living in New York City, with California and her teen PI days long behind her. With the drama and intensity of those earlier years a distant memory, she's recently begun dating her college boyfriend "Piz" (Chris Lowell, Enlisted) again. All is good, until her phone rings. It's Logan Echolls: "I need your help Veronica." True to form, there's been a murder in her home town of Neptune, California, and her old boyfriend Logan (Jason Dohring) is suspect number one. Veronica hops on a plane, goes straight to her high school bedroom and digs out her old accessories (her signature SLR, pepper spray, and handbag), swaps her smart phone for a turn-of-the-millennium-era flip phone, puts on her old leather jacket, and Mars Investigations is back in business.

With Veronica Mars series writer and producer Diane Ruggiero, Rob Thomas has co-penned a generally tight story, with all the elements that made the series so much fun: a sensationalist headline grabbing murder, the callously cruel antics of the rich and privileged with secrets begging to be uncovered, and our never-say-die blonde detective at the centre of it all.

As plots go, the movie doesn't quite stand up by comparison with the complexity or rigour of the season(s)-long mysteries of Veronica Mars' first and second seasons. Television stories, at their best, are extended and open-ended, and Thomas used that to remarkable success with the series  allowing for story-lines that were not only intricate and dark, but also avenues for developing some of the most fascinating young characters ever seen on The CW, before or since. The film's mystery does have some classic Veronica Mars twists and reversals, but it doesn't compare well to its own established ambitions, nor I fear would it stand up to much analysis. Still, though the compressed telling of a 105-minute motion picture can't begin to approximate the pacing and complexity of a 22-episode season, the film is very much in the spirit and tone of the original series  which is a large part of what makes it both so satisfying to a long-time fan and perhaps inevitably of limited appeal to a first time viewer.

Jason Dohring and Kristen Bell

It's almost impossible not to compare the Veronica Mars film project to that other great fan-motivated film of our generation, Serenity (2005)  Joss Whedon's film return to the universe he created in the famously-cancelled series Firefly. Serenity, both in story and production, took full advantage of its translation to the big screen, playing with both a larger special effects budget and wider scope.  The result was two hours unlike any of the existing 13 hours of Firefly, and a pretty damn good movie for the converted and unconverted alike. Not only did Serenity send people back in droves to the underwatched Fox series, but there are countless viewers who enjoyed Serenity purely on its own terms. Thomas clearly did not have comparable ambitions. Veronica Mars returns us to the same sets and interiors of the series, with action sequences limited to a bar brawl and a night-time drive down the Pacific Coast Highway, and it looks and feels precisely like the television drama it's based on.  

Of course this very familiarity is also why the film was so satisfying to watch. Many of the old relationships are picked up as if nine years haven't passed. One of the best elements of the series has always been the loving and wry relationship of Veronica and her gruff PI father Keith (Enrico Colantoni), and the film gives that its due. Colantoni and Bell fall back into their old rhythms seamlessly. And the town of Neptune – that luxurious, well-paved pit of wealth, despair, and iniquity  which was always more of a character than a setting for the series comes across just as strongly in the film. And then, of course, there's Logan.

Negotiating the ups-and-downs of the Veronica/Logan relationship was actually one of the things that made the show's third season so wobbly. Tumultuous on-again, off-again relationships are always more interesting when "off-again" and keeping the two separated often required some soap opera-y plotting. In the movie, we find out that Logan's last decade has been a bit more dramatic than Veronica's. Not only was he caught kneeling over the dead body of his pop star girlfriend Bonnie DeVille, he is also apparently an active-duty navy officer, recently returned from a tour in Afghanistan. (Aside from the minor thrill of seeing Lt. Echolls meet Veronica at the airport in his summer whites, this particular conceit never really gelled for me, nor did Logan ever seem like a man who's seen combat.) Still  wars, dead girlfriends, and a murder charge hanging over his head in a death penalty state notwithstanding  Logan was his old snarky, crypto-romantic self, and the film brings our lovers back together, in all their smoldering (and admittedly enthralling) intensity.

One of the better new additions to the cast is actress Gaby Hoffmann, playing Ruby Jetson, the possibly insane superfan of the murdered Deville, and person of interest Number One in Veronica's investigation. (You can watch Hoffmann this coming fall in Amazon's recently picked up, and must-see, Transparent.) Jetson, with her over-applied eye shadow and paranoid conspiracy theories, is centre-stage in many of the film's best scenes, and it is regrettable if she lost screen time to some of the less remarkable cameos appearances which dot the film.

Ken Marino and Kristen Bell

Some of those cameos were better realized than others. The high school reunion element, for example, inspired some flyby cameos that feel more obligatory and forced than organic. Still, Ken Marino (star of Rob Thomas' post-Mars series Party Down) has a brief but pitch perfect scene as Vinnie Van Lowe.  In a single short scene, Marino returns us to a beloved (and charmingly creepy) character and actually advances the plot. Similiarly, Veronica's visit with Deputy Leo, now a San Diego police detective, not only reminds us how delightful Max Greenfield (New Girlcan be, but also provided a cute shout-out to the Veronica Mars FBI reboot season that never happened.

There is a further irony, however: even when these same returning characters are woven into the larger plot and themes of the film, those may be precisely the moments that make newcomers feel like, to pick an apropos analogy, attendees at someone else's high school reunion. Take the welcome return of "Weevil" (played by Francis Capra). A fan would find it impossible not to feel precisely what Veronica does when she meets Weevil again: five years clean, married, with child, proud owner of a minivan. But the poignancy of those changes, as well as the dark turn his rehabilitation takes by the end of the film, would no doubt be completely lost to a first time viewer  as would the crucial thematic resonance those scenes play for the entire story.

Veronica Mars was intended to be a love letter to the show's diehard fans, and speaking for this fan: message received. It was an unexpected pleasure to be able to dip my feet back into this particular pond, and should the powers-that-be green-light a sequel, I will be first in line. To paraphrase Veronica herself: Accept the mud. If you're an old Veronica Mars fan and you've been sitting on the fence, go buy your ticket and roll around in it. You will not be disappointed.

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on March 23, 2014. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.