First, the bad news: Veronica Mars, the whip-smart young sleuth played to wisecracking perfection by Kristen Bell, doesn’t get a case particularly worthy of her talents in this long-anticipated bigscreen reincarnation of the CW’s critically beloved, perpetually low-rated detective series. The good or at least so-so news: It likely won’t matter much to the show’s fans, 91,585 of whom contributed $5.7 million to a record-setting Kickstarter campaign that ultimately persuaded Warners to greenlight the project. For these die-hard cultists, even the most generically conceived whodunit would be reason enough for a return trip to Neptune, Calif., that sun-drenched neo-noir hellhole where toxic celebrity worship, police corruption and the ever-present traumas of high school continue to hold sway, a full decade after Veronica left town and swore never to look back.
Ever since the show’s unceremonious, bitterly mourned cancellation in 2007, creator Rob Thomas has been trying to get a spinoff feature greenlit (an earlier version of the project was floated in 2009, but was never approved). But as the recent Netflix-distributed fourth season of “Arrested Development” can attest, we’ve entered a brave new world of fan-supported, Web-based, stream-friendly TV rehab; in the case of “Veronica Mars,” the movie plays like a carefully engineered setup for a fresh installment of the series that, at the moment, is not forthcoming (Thomas will co-author two novels set after the events of the film). On its own, however, the Warners release represents a fascinating test case for the commercial possibilities of viewer-driven brand extension and multiplatform distribution; it’s not only the rare crowdfunded feature to be backed by a major Hollywood outfit, but also the first big studio release to be unveiled theatrically and online simultaneously.
At a fairly fleet 107 minutes, the film doesn’t even attempt to match the sprawling narrative density that made the series’ first season in particular so compelling, with its continually surprising twists and even more startling emotional wallop. Those kinds of surprises are in short supply here: Writer-director Thomas and co-writer Diane Ruggiero (a producer on the show) have effectively given us a very special reunion episode, so crammed with familiar faces that it plays less like a meaty mystery than an extended thank-you to the fans who breathed it into existence. Still, it’s smooth and engaging enough on its own compromised terms, clearly informed by Thomas’ genre-savvy storytelling and unpretentious craftsmanship, and not without a certain self-deprecating sense of humor about its own immodest origins. At its best, it may prove sufficiently intriguing to the unconverted to send them back to its earlier, richer incarnation.
Once again narrating her story in hard-boiled gumshoe fashion, our heroine quickly recaps three seasons’ worth of plot in two minutes: As the daughter of private investigator Keith Mars (Enrico Colantoni), a former police officer now forever at odds with the city’s dirty cops, high-schooler Veronica (Bell) had the smarts and the training to solve the brutal murder of her best friend, Lilly Kane (Amanda Seyfried). It was the first of many mysteries whose revelations cut to the rotten core of Neptune’s privileged elite, and Veronica, as much of a rebel and outcast as her dad, ultimately decided to leave town and start a new life after one painful betrayal too many. Nearly 10 years later, she’s living in Manhattan, fresh out of law school, and in a relationship with the refreshingly stable Stosh “Piz” Piznarski (Chris Lowell, one of many series returnees), until sudden news of another murder puts her on the next flight back home.
The victim is her former classmate Bonnie DeVille (Andrea Estella), nee Carrie Bishop, a troubled pop star found electrocuted in her bathtub; the prime suspect is Carrie’s volatile ex-boyfriend and Veronica’s own former flame, rich-kid Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), who was found passed out at the scene of the crime. Although Logan and Veronica haven’t spoken in years, he asks her to help him find a decent lawyer; before long, of course, her natural instincts kick in and she’s investigating alternate theories; digging up long-buried secrets with the help of her reluctant partner-in-crime-solving, Wallace (Percy Daggs III), now a high-school basketball coach; running afoul of the town’s predictably shady new sheriff (Jerry O’Connell); and even making a mildly “Carrie”-like appearance at her 10-year high-school reunion, where it becomes all too clear that old grudges and humiliations never fully die. Nor, for that matter, do incriminating Internet sex tapes, a recurring plot device in a movie shrewdly wired into the perils of our voyeuristic, tablet-addicted, social-media-obsessed age.
In short, there’s no place like home. One of the strengths of the original series was its sardonic but never cynical portrait of teenage rebellion and alienation, its playful yet potent awareness of high school as a living nightmare that even the best of us never fully shake off. In the movie, the subtext has been made literal, hammered home at times with overly on-the-nose dialogue (“Don’t let this town take you down like it does everyone else”); meanwhile, local corruption has escalated to levels of oppression and seedy violence that seem less appropriate to a SoCal beach community than to the former German Democratic Republic, as evidenced by not one but two life-threatening assaults on major characters. Spread out over a full season, these traumas might have dovetailed crisply with the overarching drama, but in this context, they feel more like perfunctory jolts. Ditto the identity of Carrie’s killer, which turns out to be linked to yet another suspicious death from their high-school days, and which is yanked to the surface with none of the satisfyingly layered development the show allowed for. It’s more like “I Know What You Did 10 Summers Ago.”
Armed with a long zoom lens, a can of pepper spray and a fresh arsenal of one-liners, and played with Bell’s ever-winning combo of spunk and vulnerability, Veronica is still hard as nails yet also, in her honest self-appraisal, as soft as a marshmallow — a description that unfortunately also applies to the movie. There’s no real edge or surprise to any of it, and as Veronica finds herself getting sucked back into Neptune’s mysteries, like an addict falling off the wagon after a decade of sobriety, her gradual withdrawal from her boring, drama-free boyfriend and promising New York legal career feel both predictable and obligatory. So, too, does the gradual reawakening of her feelings for Logan, who comes off as a disappointingly watered-down version of a character who, as played with blazing, hyper-articulate brilliance by Dohring, was always one of the series’ most memorably complex creations. (You know you’re in for nice-guy Logan when he greets Veronica at the airport in a JAG uniform.)
The one element that fully retains its freshness is the tough-and-tender rapport between Veronica and Keith, thanks in no small part to Colantoni’s wonderful performance as a rumpled voice of reason who regards his daughter’s shenanigans with a mixture of exasperation, concern and unmistakable pride. Other welcome returnees include Francis Capra as Eli “Weevil” Navarro, a former biker-gang leader who’s since been lovably domesticated; Ryan Hansen as everyone’s favorite A-hole frat boy, Dick Casablancas; and Krysten Ritter (“Breaking Bad”) as Gia Goodman, an old friend of Veronica’s who becomes one of the key targets of her investigation. On the newer side, Gaby Hoffmann (“Girls,” “Crystal Fairy”) has a brief but juicy role as an obsessed Bonnie Deville fan; Jamie Lee Curtis makes a welcome appearance as a lawyer trying to recruit Veronica; and there’s one major celebrity cameo that nicely sums up everything Thomas and Ruggiero have to say about celebrity culture at a time when the usual social boundaries have all but collapsed.
A few snippets of Bonnie’s original music adds to the film’s otherwise unsurprising rock soundtrack; in all respects, the smoothly shot and edited picture will look right at home on the smallscreen, as befits a low-budget project likely to generate more downloads than ticket sales.