Veronica Mars

Regardless of its actual merits as a feature film, the Veronica Mars movie will probably always be best known for the way it was financed, and for the possibility (as yet unclear) that itís a bellwether for the economics of a radically changing industry. (The film, if you havenít heard by now, was stuck in development hell for years before creator more

Reviewed by Jack Rodgers

Regardless of its actual merits as a feature film, the Veronica Mars movie will probably always be best known for the way it was financed, and for the possibility (as yet unclear) that itís a bellwether for the economics of a radically changing industry. (The film, if you havenít heard by now, was stuck in development hell for years before creator Rob Thomas decided to launch a Kickstarter campaign that solicited donations directly from fans in order to the fund the production -- raising the minimum amount of two million dollars in less than a day, and winding up with almost six million when all was said and done). Veronica Mars was briefly general-interest news, an ironic legacy for a TV show that was beloved by a cult audience but watched by so few when it was on the air; the week it was officially cancelled by the CW, its latest episode was the lowest-rated work of original programming to air in prime time on a major network (if you count the CW as a major network, but thatís a whole different article).

Thomas promised that the success of the Kickstarter campaign meant that he was honor bound to give the fans what they wanted, namely a film that felt as much like the TV series as possible. Gone was an aborted plot line about Veronica joining the FBI; instead, the movie is something of a greatest hits of past material (tellingly, most of it culled from the first two seasons, ignoring the showís underwhelming final season set at college) that manages to bring back virtually every minor character and resets Veronicaís life to the status quo of the series. The film actually manages to pull this off while fitting an entire investigation into a brisk 107 minutes, but is that such a good thing? Is Veronica Mars a just-when-I-thought-I-was-out-they-pull-me-back-in tale of a damaged person unable to let go of her past, or an act of fan-mandated creative stasis?

The original mid-aughts television show followed Veronica (Kristen Bell), the daughter of a Californian sheriff-turned-PI, as she investigated the murder of her best friend Lilly while taking on miscellaneous cases involving her fellow students. The story of Lillyís death wrapped up with the first season, and it led to a supremely ill-advised romance between Veronica and Lillyís ex-boyfriend, a rich, self-destructive bad boy named Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring). When we meet Veronica again at the start of the film, she hasnít seen Logan in nine years, and sheís put aside her life as a private investigator for a lucrative career in law. She makes clear to everyone she meets that she wants a new life for herself, one thatís free of drama. But that vow becomes harder to keep when Logan is accused of murdering his pop-star girlfriend in what looks like an open-and-shut case.

She returns to her hometown of Neptune with the intention of simply helping Logan select a good lawyer, but when the evidence starts piling up that the murder might be connected to an even more disturbing mystery involving her high-school classmates, Veronica canít help but go all in. She evens lowers herself to looking for clues at the one event she never wanted to be seen at: her ten-year high-school reunion.

One of the things that made the TV series Veronica Mars so great was the elegant way it wedded together the title characterís personal life and the mystery of Lillyís murder. The caseís suspects, witnesses, and red herrings werenít strangers but her friends and loved ones, and the show raised the possibility that solving the mystery could destroy Veronica emotionally. It was an ingenious plot structure, but it was also one that required the show to clear the decks every few years and introduce new people into Veronicaís life to serve the same functions; ideally, Veronica Mars should have rebooted itself as something totally different with every new mystery. Instead, the show was loath to get rid of its fan-favorite characters, causing it to feel dramatically inert by the end.

This film version has something of the same problem: Given that this is the third time Logan has been accused of murder, itís hard to even consider the possibility that he did it. The mystery exists mostly to drag Veronica back home, but it also makes you wonder if sheíll ever make new acquaintances or find a different job than the one she had in high school. (At least Bell and Dohringís chemistry from the series remains intact.)

Thomasí fear of pissing off anyone who donated also yields some bizarre creative decisions -- for example, making the new sheriff of Neptune the younger brother of a character who was killed on the show, who just so happens to have his siblingís exact same personality and career ambitions. And itís disappointing that the spread-the-wealth mentality toward bringing back old characters means that hardly anyone gets that much screen time besides Veronica and Logan -- Veronicaís former best friends Wallace (Percy Daggs III) and Mac (Tina Majorino), both a huge part of the showís appeal, are only a few steps up from being cameos.

That said, Veronica Mars is still much better than anyone could have expected from a film that has to serve so many masters -- not just the Kickstarter backers, but a general audience that never watched the show. Its mystery, despite the feelings of deja vu it inspires, is well-crafted, involving, and fits the classical structure in which a crime in the present is slowly traced back to horrific misdeeds that were long thought buried. The lighting and production design are vastly better than what Thomas was able to afford on a TV budget, and it goes a long way toward selling Neptune as a shadowy, corrupt place thatís full of unwholesome secrets. Itís great to see Kristen Bell, after spending her post-VM career stuck in half-baked indie projects and lame rom-coms, in a project that displays the full range of her talent: Sheís alternatively funny, vengeful, and compassionate. And it really is fun to catch up with these characters and see where their lives have taken them since the show ended, fan service or no.

Veronica Mars, then, accomplishes what it set out to accomplish, and in that sense it can be considered a success. It even ends on a note that implies that further adventures might be forthcoming (if nothing else, a tie-in series of novels has been announced). But that ending also suggests that the characters have regressed for the sake of maintaining the franchiseís status quo, all so they can sell us future sequels that will no doubt bear a suspicious resemblance to stories weíve seen before. Maybe Veronica Mars is a look at the future of Hollywood in more ways than one.