SXSW Review: ‘Veronica Mars’ Starring Kristen Bell

SXSW Review: 'Veronica Mars' Starring Kristen Bell
SXSW Review: 'Veronica Mars' Starring Kristen Bell

The mere existence of a “Veronica Mars” movie seems downright miraculous in and of itself. This was a beloved but barely viewed cult television series that aired on the now-defunct UPN for three unceremonious seasons before being banished to the illusory land of “canceled before its time.” Years after it was axed, it was resurrected via the magic of internet-based crowd funding (which is kind of bizarre, especially considering one of its producers is Joel Silver, a man responsible for “The Matrix” trilogy and “Non-Stop“). This is a movie that the fans desperately wanted, so much so that they paid for it themselves. So it is something of a relief to report that the movie version of the series, while not without its flaws, fundamentally maintains the heart and intrigue of the television series, but in a miniaturized, less nuanced form. The question is whether or not anyone who isn’t a die-hard devotee of the series will care.

The “Veronica Mars” movie begins with a recap of the “Veronica Mars” television series, in a kind of art deco video collage. The title character, played once again by Kristen Bell, was a teenage private eye, who was spurred into action by the murder of her BFF (Amanda Seyfried, here seen only in the montage) when they were both fifteen. Veronica spent her high school years causing trouble and investigating her peers; something that didn’t exactly make her the most popular student at Neptune High. But hey, she reports, in her typically hard boiled voice over, she’s changed now. She might have been an addict before, one who couldn’t kick the habit of danger and mystery and righteous indignation, but that’s in her past. Now she lives in New York and is being vetted by a prestigious law firm (run by one of the original icons of feminist might, Jamie Lee Curtis). She’s left her wild high school days behind her, wrapped up tidily in that pre-opening credits rundown.

Except… she hasn’t. Coming out of her job interview she sees that a formerly classmate, now a popular (but troubled) pop star has been found dead in her Neptune house. And, wouldn’t you know it, the number one suspect in the crime is her ex-boyfriend Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring). From there, Veronica is thrown back into her ole role as a spunky sleuth, reconnecting with her old friends like Wallace Fennel (Percy Daggs III), now a teacher and coach at Neptune High, and Cindy “Mac” Mackenzie (Tina Majorino), who now works at the evil tech company run by Veronica’s arch nemeses. There’s even a high school reunion effortlessly shoehorned into the plot to really take the whole “she’s coming back home” angle home.

Of course, one of the cornerstones of “Veronica Mars” was in the depiction of Veronica’s relationship with her father, Keith (Enrico Colantoni), who used to be Neptune’s Sherriff but who was ousted and forced to open up his own private investigation firm. Veronica’s mom was a drunk and throughout “Veronica Mars,” mostly in the aforementioned voice over, she returns to that addiction metaphor to describe why she keeps getting embroiled in these situations and with these people. Keith is everything that her mother was not, and while it would have been nice to see the filmmakers luxuriate in warming glow of their relationship, this isn’t like the show when quiet moments could be built around that bond, elaborated on and explored for whole episodes. It’s a 107-minute long movie. And danger’s afoot.

It’s almost pointless to describe the rest of the plot of “Veronica Mars,” because if you haven’t been an obsessive fan of the series, then chances are that it’s all going to be Greek to you anyway. Even casual fans might be left befuddled or feeling out of the loop, given the amount of winky inside jokes and arcane references that are scattered throughout the film. We started counting them but then kind of gave up (especially when it was too slight for the audience to even pick up on). At one point, there’s a bizarre, overlong exchange where two characters elliptically talk about the aborted season four concept of the series, with Veronica assuming the role of a plucky FBI agent in the Clarice Starling mold. When you raise $6 million in funding from fans of the series and then waste screen time dissecting what is essential a DVD bonus feature, you’re either in the territory of extreme genius or needless self-indulgence.

“Veronica Mars” walks that fine line often. As far as a film goes, there are some places where it absolutely falls flat. As pithy and sharp-witted as the screenplay is (and, honestly, you could probably restore dull kitchenware on this thing), the direction by series creator Rob Thomas (who also co-wrote the script, with Diane Ruggiero) is oftentimes flat and visually dull. It’s weird to think that the show, on its miniscule UPN budget, could conjure more convincing film noir-ish scenarios than a $6 million movie. But that seems to be the case here with the actors either over lit to the point of glaring brightness, or not lit at all. And the action is pretty clumsily filmed and put together. Most of the time you can understand what’s going on; sometimes you just can’t.

And so the movie, is more than anything, a bold and breathless work of fan service, configured by the creators of the original series for the maximum enjoyment of the fans of the original series. There’s never been anything that’s been attempted (or assembled) quite like this. And the ballsiness of that is something to at least admire on some small level. Even if it doesn’t work all the time, it’s still a pretty solid experiment. Devoted members of the Church of Mars, probably won’t find a moment when a dopey smile isn’t plastered across their face (and again, non-devotees might be left scratching their heads). Bell, in particular, remains a transfixing presence, slipping back into the character with ease and confidence.

Thankfully there’s another thing that this new “Veronica Mars” beautifully maintains – the original series’ steadfast feminist outlook. Veronica isn’t just the toughest, coolest girl to inhabit the small screen since Buffy took out the Hellmouth (and, yes, they do pay homage to Joss Whedon‘s immortal creation here, as they rightfully should), but Thomas and Ruggiero have populated “Veronica Mars” with strong, though, deeply fascinating female characters (played by actresses like Krysten Ritter, Gabby Hoffman, and Andrea Estelle). Even if this movie is not something that goes down not as a cultural landmark or a breakthrough financial success, if it’s one claim to fame is that it was funded by Kickstarted and serves as a feature-length series finale that fans discover long after they’ve gone through the show, it will still retain this power. “Veronica Mars” did something new, but bringing back something old. And even Veronica, with her cool, cynical detachment, would think is pretty cool. [B]

Click here for more coverage from the 2014 SXSW Film Festival.

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