As a member of the reviewing press, I sometimes get the chance to see films early, for free, or both. And like most critics (perhaps despite Kevin Smith‘s objections), I’ve never felt the need to declare this as a potential conflict of interest. But in this case, it seems incumbent that I mention I was a backer of the Veronica Mars Kickstarter project, a curious experiment in online crowdsourcing in which a bunch of fans of a little-watched rag-tag TV show decided to make a $5.7 million charitable donation to Warner Bros, a film studio that had $12 billion in revenue last year, and which probably spends that amount at Starbucks every week. I don’t raise this point to object in any way to my participation in the Kickstarter, nor to raise any doubts that its runaway success was the proximate cause of this film’s existence. But this is still a surreal new frontier for film production, and as both a financial backer of the film and a fan of the original UPN TV show, I must admit that I’m doubly unqualified to review this film with any objectivity, and should probably recuse myself from the discussion. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, I’ll go ahead and review the film anyway!
Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) is a former high school film-noir detective who returns to her hometown, the fictitious Neptune, CA, to help out her once and future boyfriend Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), who has just been charged with the murder of his pop-star girlfriend, Bonnie DeVille, who is played in archive footage by Andrea Estrella, but is a conversion in both name and actress from original-series character Carrie Bishop, played at the time by Leighton Meester.
Confused yet? For the most part, you shouldn’t be. The connections to the original series seem almost purposefully tenuous. The film attempts to engage new viewers immediately with a quick recap of the major characters and accompanying voiceover from Bell. Like Serenity before it, this opening sequence sets the stage adequately while dispensing with most of the unnecessary backstory. Those few superfluous details that make it in from the show are little more than throwaway lines (remember when Logan’s father murdered his teenage girlfriend?), and merely serve to effectively build out the world of the film. Logan is a mostly reformed bad-boy, son of a disgraced (and deceased) movie star, and apparently on leave from an unspecified branch of the US Military. Veronica is a smart, capable, and occasionally ruthless woman who made it out of her corrupt (and filthy rich?) hometown to become a hotshot would-be attorney in New York City. And several other characters – Wallace (Percy Daggs III), Mac (Tina Majorino), and current boyfriend Stosh ‘Piz’ Piznarski (Chris Lowell) – seem unfortunately relegated to “old friend” status. We learn almost nothing about them, and they unfortunately contribute very little to the story. The same cannot be said for Veronica’s father, Keith Mars (Enrico Colantoni), who is a welcome and capable presence. The father-daughter dynamic is clear and unmistakable – and the tension as she asserts her adulthood and independence is both heartwarming and funny as the film goes on.
All in all, the mystery was effective. To be honest, I was all set to call it “fun but predictable” before the last half hour rolled around, but the film takes many effective turns and crafts an elegant, if slightly hasty, solution to the Logan Echolls murder dilemma. I could mention several effective performances (including a stunning monologue by a talented and underused character actress – click here if you really want to know who I mean), but it honestly feels like a spoiler to even mention which performances spoke to me the most here. So I’ll just confine it to one: Kristen Bell herself. The most surprising adjective I could apply to the original property is “gritty”, especially when the protagonist is a high schooler. It takes an actor with an appropriate blend of intensity, humor, and (I daresay) vulnerability to pull off such a character, and Bell unambiguously owns the personage of Veronica Mars from the first frame.
Unfortunately, there is one problematic character in this film – the town of Neptune, CA itself. The film attempts to deliver a severely abridged rendition of The Wire, setting up a town with a corrupt police force (led by Jerry O’Connell) and a cycle of criminality that unrelentingly sucks good people back in. Much of this corruption centers around reformed gangbanger Eli ‘Weevil’ Navarro (Francis Capra), whose friendship with Veronica began when he smashed her headlights and threatened her life in the first episode of the series, and continues now that he has a wife, daughter, and legitimate business. This was always one of the most interesting characters on the show, and I regret to say, without that backstory to prop this character up, the film doesn’t earn the arc that it attempts to shoehorn in through about 10 minutes of total screentime for Navarro. And this wouldn’t be nearly so problematic if his arc didn’t inform Veronica’s decisionmaking so directly. Veronica’s central dilemma, of whether to move on to her high-profile job in NYC or stay and try to reform her broken hometown, feels like too big of a decision to resolve within the confines of a two-hour film that has its own story to contend with. The film seems to be trying to have its cake and eat it too, tying up and expanding the arc of the original series, while telling a higher-budget, self-contained, and PG-13 profanity-laden mystery story at the same time.
But I suppose that’s fine. A TV series continuing as a film always feels, to a degree, like expanded-universe fan-fiction. It simultaneously gives the fans what they want, and serves as a re-pilot for a series that will almost certainly never exist. And the more I describe this method, the more it reminds me of the aforementioned Serenity, another TV-show follow-on that I think handled its expanded universe slightly more effectively than Veronica Mars without feeling quite as beholden to the events of the original series. I enjoyed this film. And you should take that opinion for whatever it’s worth. And given the dearth of great standalone detective stories in the modern era, I suspect that a non-viewer of the original series would still get a great deal out of this. But can you trust me on that? Hell if I know. I’m just a marshmallow.
FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10