Can you ever go back to the past after you've closed the book on it, and would you want to? Will you like what you find there?
These are not just the central questions in the movie "Veronica Mars," which premiered yesterday at SXSW, but questions that filmmaker Rob Thomas, his cast, and the audience who enjoyed the three-season TV series have addressed. After seven years, can you successfully return to the setting and characters of a TV show to make a low-budget feature film?
The answer is yes. Thomas and his co-writer Diane Ruggiero have penned a self-avowed love letter to the fans of the series, but grounded it in a solid thriller with compelling characters and bright comic moments.
After a short recap of Veronica's (Kristen Bell) high school private investigator days, the movie leaps ahead nine years after the last episode of the TV series to show us where the title character ended up. She left the bizarrely corrupt town of Neptune, CA and has closed the door very firmly on her past, as she prepares to take the bar exam and work as a high-powered corporate New York attorney. But it’s her past that's getting her in the door for job interviews, like it or not.
After her old teen flame Logan (Jason Dohring) is accused of murdering one of their fellow high-school classmates, Veronica ventures back to Neptune, trying not to get sucked into a growing mystery. She's also hoping to avoid her 10-year high school reunion, but there's no way this film would miss the opportunity to show us such a quantity of characters from the TV series in a single setting.
Sequences like the reunion are part of the many ways Thomas caters to the "Veronica Mars" fanbase that funded the film in a record-breaking Kickstarter campaign. Fortunately, the film winks at the fans without patronizing them, and without making other audiences members feel left out. Minor but beloved characters appear briefly, and the theme song pops up unexpectedly (performed by Alejandro Escovedo). Thomas might have underestimated fans' enthusiasm, however, and doesn't allow enough time for audience reactions to happen without stepping on the next lines. (He needed maracas, a la "Some Like It Hot.")
A well-paced, well-structured mystery keeps the film exciting for all audience members, with shades of Hitchcock and "Charade" lurking around several scenes and characters. The dark silhouettes and sinister framing in several shots provide reminders that these mysteries are grim situations Nancy Drew never had to deal with.
It's the characters and their relationships that anchor "Veronica Mars," working in tandem with suspenseful aspects of the movie to keep it engaging. Veronica's relationship with her dad (Enrico Colantoni) has always been my favorite part of the series, and it's just as sweet and funny here. The scene where Veronica returns to her father's office for the first time to surprise him hits all the right notes... and economically shows the futility of her desire to shut out the past.
Veronica is far more interesting in Neptune than in New York. She has a smart mouth on her. She's absolutely fearless. She hates injustice and wants to get to the bottom of anything that smells fishy. This is a character I want to have a beer with (and not at a bad karaoke dive), as opposed to the corporate-lawyer-to-be in the prim suit with the boyfriend who works for "This American Life." It's easy to see that Veronica can't escape what's bred in the bone, to paraphrase Robertson Davies.
The supporting characters drawn with the broadest strokes work best in the film. Ryan Hansen as Dick Casablancas gives the film its goofiest comic moments... apart from a couple of cameos by familiar faces in a nightclub scene. Venal Sheriff Don Lamb (Jerry O’Connell), loopy groupie Ruby Jetson (Gaby Hoffman) and Krysten Ritter's party girl Chloe -- I mean Gia -- are over the top but entertaining. Unfortunately, Jason Dohring as Logan is a character whose passionate personality traits are talked about more than shown -- if you haven't watched the show, he seems little more than the Wronged Woman stereotype with a gender reversal.
Because the movie Veronica Mars is set nearly a decade after the TV show, it lacks the high school stratification setting many fans believed was integral to the series. (For those of us who prefer mysteries over mean girls, this is a boon.) And at times, the voiceover narration, a stock feature of the show, feels excessive and unnecessary here -- too much telling, not enough showing. On the other hand, the snappy dialogue, another carryover from the series, gives "Veronica Mars" a sassy edge, balancing suspense and smartassery quite successfully for all viewers.