While having at least a passing understanding of the TV series is an almost necessary prerequisite to understanding and appreciating the kickstarted Veronica Mars feature film, fans should get exactly what they want out of this condensed outing. It plays upon the best themes of a television show that was cancelled far too soon while cutting out all the filler that sometimes comes with doing series that have more than 20 episodes in a given season. A brief two minute recap for those who never saw the show (or forgot) won’t do novices any favours, but as a coda to a series that deserved a lot better than an abrupt conclusion, it does the job wonderfully.
Several years after leaving her hometown of Neptune, California to go to university, former teenage sleuth Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) finds herself on the cusp of a new career and a new life in New York City with her boyfriend Piz (Chris Lowell). She’s about to take the bar to become a lawyer and a law firm has been making offers to hire her immediately. Her past life comes roaring back to life with the arrest of her former antagonist, friend, and lover Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring) for the alleged murder of his pop star girlfriend. Returning home for a day with the express intention of helping Logan find a lawyer (and to visit her private detective father, played by Enrico Colantoni), she keeps finding new ways to extend the trip the more it becomes apparent that Logan is innocent. Meeting up with old friends on the weekend of her ten year high school reunion – and event she can almost only literally be dragged to – Veronica needs to make the decision if she wants the life she has ahead of her or the one she left behind where she could arguably still do just as much good.
Series creator Rob Thomas and co-writer Diane Ruggiero have created something that fans have wanted to see (myself included) while adding layers of depth for the characters and the series larger mythology that had been previously missing. In terms of plotting, the feature version of Veronica Mars plays like it took the template of the show’s stellar first season and condensed it to just a shade under two hours. It’s a different story designed to fit within those two hours, but tonally it matches the show’s early days almost beat for beat.
What’s most interesting about this take on the characters is the loving attention that Thomas and Ruggiero have put into making everyone seem a lot more grown up while retaining the same kind of whip smart humour and dime store sleuthing that made the show so entertaining in the first place. Logan hasn’t lost his sometimes dangerous temper, but there’s a newfound sense of responsibility and purpose to his life that makes one want to believe he isn’t capable of hurting someone he loves (anymore). Veronica’s dad, Keith, is even more world weary than he was when he stopped being sheriff. Even the town itself has grown up, but in less that positive ways at the hands of a new sheriff (Jerry O’Connell playing the son of the town’s deceased previous top cop) who will stop at nothing short of criminal harassment and planting of evidence to make sure his town stays safe and cases are handled as quickly as possible and without a second thought.
It’s clear that Neptune needs Veronica now more than ever, but does Veronica necessarily need Neptune? That’s the biggest question to be answered and Thomas and Bell have concocted a way to logically have Veronica’s return come with a lot more conflict than just turning it into a rehash of previous success. Through her performance and the film’s keen sense of impending adulthood, the film plays up Veronica’s addictive nature – something she inherited from her alcoholic mother – as a driving force in her life. In many ways, the film is an addiction narrative where the addict resists at first, offers guidance to a fellow addict, they begin to dabble, and then a full on relapse occurs from which there’s no turning back. It’s a strangely conflicting thing to watch because while it’s great to see Veronica come back into her own, there’s always a part of her questioning if she’s doing the right thing. It’s a voice that grows quieter and quieter as the plot thickens, with old wounds from the characters’ pasts being brought to the surface and the violence coming too close to home.
The film isn’t without its share of problems, mostly because by this point there’s an expectation inherent in any Kickstarter funded, fan based movement to keep as many people happy as possible. While it’s great to see Bell squaring off once again with Dohring and Colantoni (and even with nice new addition O’Connell), the story’s structure and concept of revolving around a high school reunion reduces some of the show’s best characters into brief cameos, plot devices, or red herrings. Some character progressions – especially those of Percy Daggs’ Wallace and Francis Capra’s former gangsta Weevil – feel somewhat tossed off and forgotten about. One character ends up inheriting a subplot that actually doesn’t go anywhere, feeling every bit like a set up for a potential second film if this one takes off (which given presales and already sold out theatrical screenings, it has). In many ways, the film feels like Thomas and company know they only have one shot to get a movie right, and they wisely put the focus on creating as great of a story as they possibly could while trying their hardest to sometimes awkwardly include fan favourites in the process.
But any wonkiness aside, Veronica Mars stays true to the show that spawned it in the best possible ways. It’s a reward to people for being patient and sticking with something long enough so that they could in turn give back a quality product on their own terms without compromising to outside forces that might have given them money to make the film, but with stipulations and caveats that would have gutted what made the film so good in the first place. In that respect, it’s actually more faithful to its source than something like Joss Whedon’s return to Firefly with Serenity. And considering how much fans of that show enjoyed that film, that’s a fairly high compliment. And if there is another film to follow and it’s as good as this one, I’d happily watch Bell play this character until she’s Angela Lansbury’s age and she becomes a tazer toting grandmother.