The Long, Cracked Lens of Nostalgia
Before diving in, let's get a couple things out of the way:
1. I'm a huge fan of the Veronica Mars TV series, which ran three seasons from 2004-2007. This is a sweeping generalization, but I suspect that anyone who writes the series off as a fluffy teen soap has never watched an episode (much less the first season, which is essentially a tight, twenty-two-hour Whodunnit).
2. I financially supported the record-shattering Veronica Mars movie campaign on Kickstarter last year. Series creator Rob Thomas asked fans to pony up $2 million to fund a feature, which Warner Brothers agreed to distribute if they came through. In less than a day, Thomas had his budget--which would nearly triple by campaign's end a few weeks later. I contributed just enough to get a t-shirt for my wife, along with digital downloads of the shooting script and finished film.*
So, is the Veronica Mars movie any good? Yes, but it's not great. In fact, it might even put off fans who appreciate solid filmmaking first and nostalgia second. Having now seen what I and more than 91,000 other backers paid for, I can safely say the money would have been better spent divvied up among six episodes of a fond-farewell TV miniseries.
I was skeptical but hopeful that Thomas could distill an inherently episodic property into a single movie. He has technically succeeded, as a matter of fan service. But newcomers will likely be left out in the cold by this confused, rushed mess of an experiment.
There's no way to talk about the film's triumphs and shortcomings without heading right for spoiler territory, so I'll leave those of you who are about to jump off with this: It's okay to wait for Veronica Mars' DVD debut in May--or to rent it on Amazon or iTunes right now. There's no reason to head out to the theatre for this one, unless you just like watching really big TV.
At the outset, we catch up on who and what Veronica Mars is: Ten years ago, pretty and popular Veronica (Kristen Bell) was shunned at high school when her sheriff father, Keith (Enrico Colantoni), accused the wrong man of murdering Veronica's best friend, Lily (Amanda Seyfried). Freshly run out of office and subsequently divorced, Keith opened a private-eye firm and employed his outcast daughter to help him solve the weird mysteries that always seem to pop up in Neptune, California--a fictitious town where (to paraphrase the pilot) people are either movie stars or the cleaners of movie stars' homes.
Today, Veronica lives in New York with college boyfriend Piz (Chris Lowell). On the eve of landing a high-paying corporate attorney job, she gets a desperate phone call from former bad-boy/lover Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring). He's been accused of electrocuting his pop-star girlfriend, and needs help navigating a sea of slimy, prospective defense lawyers. Before you can say, "dreaded high-school reunion trope", Veronica is back in Neptune, dusting off the ol' sleuthing equipment, and reacquainting herself with the friends and enemies who never left town.
Right off the bat, the key problem with Veronica Mars is Thomas and co-writer Diane Ruggiero's depiction of Logan. In the original series, he was a troubled, psychopathic rich kid who was sort of tamed by his relationship with Veronica. When we catch up with him, he's a self-serious (read: dull) military officer who literally greets his old flame at the airport in dress whites. Aside from one scene later on, in which he gets into a massive brawl, there's not a hint of the madness or darkly wry personality that made this character interesting.
Many times throughout the film, I asked myself, "As a non-fan, how would I react to...?" In the case of Logan, I might wonder why Veronica would bother jeopardizing a bright future with the warm, funny, and responsible Piz (whom she has genuinely loved for nearly a decade)--in order to shack up with a guy who transcends "brooding" and zeroes in on "wallpaper".
Logan's case is also problematic. At no point did I question his innocence. From moment one, Veronica's mission isn't to clear his name in her own eyes, but to unravel the mystery that leads to the mystery that leads to him getting off. It would have been nice to doubt Logan's purity, at least once. Instead, he sheepishly follows Veronica around, waiting for permission to sleep with her (which is granted, in one of the most backwards-looking but sadly predictable plot developments I've seen lately). Had we been presented with the Logan of old who'd, say, spent the last decade as a Charlie-Sheen-like tabloid darling--a mega-public, mega-train-wreck--the filmmakers might have toyed with the audience's sympathies to great effect.
Instead, we're left with a barrel full of red herrings, including an obsessive fan of the dead girl (Gaby Hoffman); a sinister and corrupt local police force; and the newest incarnation of the once legendary PCH biker gang, whose main intimidation tactic now involves riding around in circles. We also get numerous references to the Kane family, who was at the center of Keith Mars' murder investigation; a horror story about a seemingly-unrelated-to-anything death on a yacht several years earlier; and the neutering of the other bad-boy in Veronica's high school life, Weevil (Francis Capra), whose arc literally goes nowhere and makes zero sense--in the absence of a sequel that isn't likely to happen.
Only one of the plots above is relevant to proving Logan's innocence, and its resolution centers on a climax so rushed that I was momentarily convinced my stream had skipped a few minutes by mistake (no such luck). The others are filler that, I'm sure, Thomas could have turned into at least one strong season of a Veronica Mars 2.0. When compressed into an hour and forty-eight minutes, though, the dropped subplots, bizarre asides, and pacing issues come across as a YouTube fan edit.
That's unfortunate, because the cast is so game to return. Bell is always a sassy, vulnerable delight, and her tender banter with Colantoni becomes the heart of the film (as was the case on TV). Brief appearances by Max Greenfield, Percy Daggs III, and Tina Majorino were welcome, but ultimately served to remind me of how much room this universe needs to breathe. Thomas hints at what might have been with an in-joke about the scuttled Veronica Mars: FBI spin-off series, and it's a cruel tease.
Maybe Veronica Mars was doomed from the start. When a story's success depends on building an audience's relationship with a large set of characters and then exceeding or subverting expectations, a Cliff's Notes version of same simply cannot cut it. From the opening montage through the confusing last scene--which felt like the lead-in to a network series (and not a movie sequel)--I could feel the pressure Thomas and Ruggiero were under. On one hand, the creative team had to let die-hard fans know that they hadn't been forgotten; on the other, they were tasked with shoving a VM-worthy mystery into less than two hours--and making newcomers understand what all the fuss was about.
Sadly, the focus was on the former, and instead of a harrowing, Christopher McQuarrie-style mystery, we're treated to ninety minutes of "Spot-the-Cameo" and "How Deep Do Your Nerd References Go?" (I don't know if Ira Glass and James Franco were backers, but their pointless, unfunny screen time is culpable in robbing us of a more substantial central mystery). Ultimately, the Veronica Mars movie belies what made the Veronica Mars television show so special: in a sea of forgettable, teen-targeted UPN/WB comedies and dramas, Thomas' vision stood out as a beacon of relatability, brains, and innovation. It was a show for adults, disguised as something that would otherwise compel them to leave the room.
Sadly, the kids have won this round.
*Allow me to add my voice to the chorus of annoyed fans who aren't very happy with the way Warner Brothers decided to distribute the Veronica Mars movie. Backers who were promised a digital download on the day of release have found ourselves wrestling with the awful, unintuitive, and unhelpful streaming services Flixster and UltraViolet (both of which are required to get the film). After several attempts to get these digital dinosaurs to work, I sent an e-mail to UltraViolet and have still not yet received confirmation that my complaint was even logged.
That was Saturday night, and I wound up plopping down seven bucks to watch Veronica Mars through Amazon Prime--which, by the way, was available on my TV as soon as I walked down the hall from my office computer and plopped down on the couch. If these lousy services are the wave of the future, I'll stick with my physical-media collection, thank you very much.