VERONICA MARS (Rob Thomas, 2014)
Picking up nine years after the TV series ended, VERONICA MARS finds Kristen Bell’s titular character having left behind her sleuthing days in Neptune, California for an imminent legal career and stability with longtime boyfriend Piz (Chris Lowell) in New York City. Her old flame, bad boy Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), is also well in her past until he becomes the primary suspect in the death of his girlfriend, their former classmate turned pop star Bonnie De Ville (Andrea Estella). Although she knows trouble may await her by getting involved, Veronica can’t deny Logan her help when he asks her to assist him in picking a lawyer. She returns to her old hometown intending to perform this favor, meet up with a couple old friends, and visit her private eye dad Keith (Enrico Colantoni). Try as she might, Veronica can’t help but get dragged into investigating the case and, even more regrettably, attending her tenth high school class reunion.
Canceled in 2007 after three seasons, VERONICA MARS was revived with a Kickstarter campaign in which fans contributed more than $5.7 million to get a movie made. (In the spirit of disclosure, I am one of the more than 91-thousand project backers.) All the key players in front of the camera and behind the scenes, most notably series creator and the film’s writer-director Rob Thomas and co-writer Diane Ruggiero, are involved, although that doesn’t keep at bay the strange sense that this work is like the novelizations or comic books that have kept other properties alive after the films or TV series ended. Simultaneously released in theaters and video on demand services, VERONICA MARS is being treated as a film although the rhythms and visual style make it more like two merged television episodes or an extended pilot for the relaunch of the show.
Thomas’ execution exhibits some rust in bringing back this corrupt southern California town. The murder mystery isn’t all that compelling as a whodunit, and the plotting has the tidiness distinct to episodic TV procedurals. The mystery’s perfunctory nature can be attributed in part to the need to carve out screen time for all of the fan favorite characters and to build on past storylines, creative decisions that are a direct result of the film’s crowdfunding origin. VERONICA MARS was made because of the fans, and Thomas works hard to give them what he believes they want. One can’t fault him for thinking catering to the diehards is merited even if it might leave newcomers to VERONICA MARS on the outside looking in at particular moments and jokes.
Much of the appeal of the TV series and the VERONICA MARS film resides in Bell’s dryly funny and vulnerable performance. WIth the proper touch of ironic knowingness she dispenses the snappy dialogue mimicking hard-boiled exchanges from the 1940s. While Bell has fun slinging Veronica’s wit at her loved ones and enemies, she’s also good at showing the wounds that have required her to develop a tough shell. The relationship between father and daughter was the show’s real heart, not her on-again, off-again romance with Logan, and in her few scenes with Colantoni she reveals what it means to love and be loved unconditionally. Keith and Veronica disagree and tease without harming the fundamental warmth they feel for each other, especially because it’s what they each need more than anything else.
While the film can be rightly criticized for indulging in fan service, Thomas also has words of caution about chasing what used to be. It’s not that he’s hedging on whether he can deliver with the VERONICA MARS revival but rather that he’s reminding the series’ biggest supporters that nostalgia is seductive but not always healthy. The hard-bitten sentiment is very much in keeping with the film noir styling. Veronica couches her renewed attraction to Logan and detective work in terms of addiction and suggests that returning to both may bring about her downfall like alcohol ruined her mother. The film’s conclusion satisfies with the rush of fulfilling what seems like a natural progression for the gumshoe, but it’s murkier whether this realization of destiny is a positive development. The character will live on in paperback novels, but if this is the end of VERONICA MARS in films or a television series, Thomas manages to send her out in a way that seems like both a happy and potentially bitter finish.