Saturday, March 22, 2014

VERONICA MARS Movie Review: A Long Time Ago We Used To Be Friends, But Feels Like Just Yesterday To Me


- Unbelievable. It's insane to think about how quickly the media landscape has changed in just a few short years. Veronica Mars premiered at a time when DVR's were still in their infancy, when options for catching up on missed TV were limited, and when the idea of binge-watching fan-favorite shows on Netflix was a concept not yet in existence. Veronica Mars was a great show ahead of its time. It premiered on the flailing UPN network, which during its lifespan never really produced a buzzworthy hit. It continued on CW, but by that point, the show was barely hanging on - and the CW wasn't all that motivated to give it the promotional push it needed. For me, Veronica Mars was a pet issue. In the early days of my blog-writing, I constantly and emphatically spread the gospel to any and all who would listen. Veronica Mars was the best show that no one was watching. It was a dark, smart, brilliantly-written neo-noir - anchored by Kristen Bell and elevated by a best-in-the-biz supporting cast. It had style, it had smarts. But like so many great shows of the 00's - from Pushing Daisies to Arrested Development - a cult following of diehard fans was not enough to save the show from the dreaded fate of cancellation. The sort of mass-marathoning that would later make cult faves like Breaking Bad into legitimate hits was still years away from being a thing.

But back in 2007, when I wrote my farewell to the unceremoniously-axed Veronica Mars, I mused that (unlike the bottom-of-the-barrel reality show that replaced it on CW's schedule), the show would live on. It would be remembered and rediscovered. It would be talked about and discussed and written about. But back then, I couldn't have predicted the way in which whole new audiences would find the show, how people too young to have watched in in the 00's would now embrace it, or how Kickstarter would allow for a partially fan-funded film to get greenlit.

The fact that a Veronica Mars movie exists - that it was released theatrically years after the show went off the air - is amazing. Sure, we can debate the exact mechanics of the Kickstarter fund. When Kickstarter money is going not to individuals, but to a huge studio like Warner Bros that, there's a very legitimate debate to be had about the extent to which the fundraising is honest or even necessary. But I won't get into a prolonged discussion of that here. Instead, I'll say that, regardless, this is a game-changer. Fan support is now quantifiable, and that means the possibility of content that is made less for a wide audience and more for the core fans. In the old network TV model, number of eyeballs were everything. But now, it's more about the passion and loyalty of those eyeballs.

And Veronica Mars fans are nothing if not passionate. And in turn, the VERONICA MARS movie is a love letter of sorts to the fans. I have to admit, I was surprised at some of the rather tepid reviews of the film I read in publications like Entertainment Weekly. Were these guys not fans? Did they not get it? Perhaps those not in-the-loop felt snubbed. They had hoped to read the cliffnotes of the series, see the movie, and feel like they were fully a part of the zeitgeist. But the reality is that, yes, to fully appreciate this movie, I think you're probably going to want to spend some time going through all three seasons of the series. A requirement? No. A strong recommendation? Yes. This movie is one chapter of an ongoing saga, and you're going to want to appreciate all the callbacks - big and small - to what went before.

With that in mind, it's sort of amazing to me to think about what writer/creator/director Rob Thomas pulled off here. On one hand, Veronica Mars was a show with a lot of characters and a lot of continuity - and Thomas had to pick up the pieces, reestablish the status quo, and fill us in on what everyone had been up to in the years since we last visited the fictional town of Neptune, CA. On the other hand, the movie had to work as a piece of self-contained entertainment - it couldn't just be about checking off the boxes that would please longtime fans. It had to tell a great Veronica Mars story, and also feel like "more" than just an episode of the show. It had to feel big, and epic, and special.

No need to worry though - Thomas accomplishes both goals with flying colors. Like I said, the movie is a love letter to both the fans and the show's characters - giving us lots to get excited over, and many reminders of why we loved the show and its characters to begin with. And yet, all the character cameos, reintroductions, etc. feel pretty organic to the plot. The show always operated on the conceit that Neptune was mired in an interconnected web of shadiness, in which the town's rich elite and desperate poor intersect and clash at every turn. The same is true in the film - the plotline here is, in some ways, bigger in scope than anything from the show. But unsurprisingly, things become more insular as the plot unravels. And why not? There are enough suspect characters - and enough intrigue - in Neptune, that there's no need to go elsewhere to drive the action.

Indeed, the arc of the movie is that this is, in many ways, a homecoming for Veronica. When we first rejoin V. Mars, she's living in New York and has become, well, pretty buttoned-up. She's interviewing for a big corporate law job and seems to have settled into a a nice but decidedly low-risk life. While she would undoubtedly make a crackerjack lawyer, there's clearly a sense that Veronica is not where she's supposed to be, nor doing what she's supposed to be doing. So when she's summoned by old on-again, off-again flame -and overall bad influence - Logan Echolls, to return to Neptune to help clear him of murder charges (he asks her to help him vet lawyers, but we know the deal), it's a bad situation that still feels oh-so-right.

The mystery of who really killed troubled rich kid Logan's pop-star girlfriend is what drives the plot, and personally, I think it makes for a damn fine mystery. There's never really a question that Logan is innocent of the charges, but that's okay - it opens the door for any number of Veronica's other old acquaintances to be the guilty party. And what acquaintances they are. It's an absolute blast to see the likes of hilariously crude party-boy Dick Casablancas again (Ryan Hansen kills it). And scummy P.I. Vinnie Van Lowe (the great Ken Marino in top form). And spoiled former teen-queen Gia Goodman (Krysten Ritter, whose career has blown up since the show went off the air, and who deservedly gets a bigger part to play in the film). And, oh, Martin Starr (Freaks & Geeks callback - another of the 00's tragically-cancelled-too-soon TV shows) turns up as a creepy former classmate of Veronica's. It's equally awesome to see those on the side of the angels make their big returns. Chief among them are Veronica's ever-loyal best bud Wallace (Percy Diggs III) and punk-geek hacker Mac (Tina Majorino). Seeing them again is like seeing old friends - I only wish they had more screentime. Same goes for reformed biker-gang leader Weevil, brought so memorably to life on the show by Francis Capra. Capra gets some big moments here, and a plotline that helps open the door for further mysteries to be addressed in (hopefully?) still-to-come movies. To Thomas' credit though, this isn't a case of feeling like these characters got the shaft - more so that they're just such great characters that we're left wanting more. As much as I could watch a whole movie about the sleuthing adventures of Wallace and Mac, or the school-of-hard-knocks moral quandaries of Weevil, there's a lot of story to be told here, and these characters can only be allotted so much time.

For all of the movie's fun bit players though (old favorites, like Max Greenfield's Leo, or new additions, like Jerry O'Connell as a sleazeball sheriff, and Gaby Hoffman as a stalker-ish superfan), the holy trinity here is Veronica, Logan, and Keith Mars. Keith Mars - played so brilliantly by Enrico Colantoni - is in many ways the movie's beating heart. While Veronica had the chance to get out of Neptune and start fresh, Keith is in too deep. He's too invested in his town, and too embittered to leave and let Neptune get washed over with corruption and crime. Veronica was his great white hope - the one who could start afresh. So it kills Keith that Veronica, through Logan, has been pulled back into the thick of things. At the same time - this is film noir after all, and that means that in this world, there is no escape. No escape from Neptune, no escape from fate.

That's another thing that's so brave and refreshing about this film. It goes full noir. What I mean is, the show always mixed the trappings of noir and detective fiction with those of high school drama. But now that Veronica is an adult, the movie has to sort of evolve past its original high school setting. Now, the movie calls back heavily towards its Neptune High roots, with the clever device of a ten-year reunion superimposed over the big-picture mystery. And like any ten-year reunion, this makes for a great chance to both briefly revisit the past, but also to move beyond it. We know who Veronica Mars was, but now, we know who she is as an adult. And the movie doesn't shy away from morphing the plucky young Veronica into a full-blown hard-boiled P.I. That's sort of awesome, because how many hard-boiled *female* P.I.'s have there been in the history of ... well, ever? When I say hard-boiled, I'm referring, I suppose, to some of the qualities that we associate with the classic noir protagonist. Hard-lived guys who are good at heart, but who do at times live in a moral grey area, and who do at times make bad decisions. As the movie evolves Veronica into this traditionally male role, I began to realize: Logan is Veronica's femme fatale.

This is sort of fascinating, because here's the thing: at the movie's start, Veronica and good old Stosh "Piz" Piznarsky are a couple. Piz, you may remember, was the good-natured, geeky college radio-host who dated Veronica in Season 3 of the show. Guys seemed to like him, because he was a fill-in for the sort of fanboys who crushed on Veronica from their couches. But girls seemed less impressed, because Veronica and Piz never had the danger-fueled sparks that she and Logan did during their star-crossed but ill-fated flings (and here, there is again chemistry with Dohring, though he does seem to have perhaps the hardest time of the cast getting back into VM form). But even the staunchest Logan/Veronica 'shippers, I think, will end up sort of rooting a bit for Piz in this movie. He and Veronica have a good thing going - witty banter, shared and awesomely-nerdy pop-culture references (Piz even declared Neptune High to be sitting on a Hellmouth). But since the movie goes full-noir, Veronica is of course increasingly drawn away from good-guy Piz and towards male-fatale Logan. And people, I think, will sort of cringe at this. And yet, do we cringe when Batman makes out with Catwoman, or when James Bond locks lips with a woman we know is bad news? I sort of dug how the movie flips things around, and gives us a new breed of gumshoe for 2014. Veronica Mars was always ahead of her time - now, even more so.

By the way, nothing about this world feels dated - in case you were worried. Neptune has always had old-school aesthetics, but the Veronica Mars movie transitions to a world of smartphones, Twitter, and tablets with the utmost ease. The smart use of today's tech makes Veronica's sleuthing that much cooler, if at all possible.

Let's talk about the leading lady herself. Kristen Bell was born to play this character, and she slips back into the role of Ms. Mars like she never left. Bell is an interesting actor. Her public persona is goofy and sort of loopy, and she's done variations on that in various comedies over the years. We've seen her play serious and adult, and we've heard her give voice to Disney princesses. But her transformation into Veronica Mars is full-body. She just inhabits the character fully, and makes Veronica iconic and larger-than-life - all while maintaining that spunky, girl-next-door quality that made her different than your average CW star back in the day. But man, how great it is to hear Veronica's at-once inviting, at once hard-boiled voice-overs again. Nobody does it better than Bell. It's all part of the Veronica Mars package that is so perfectly recaptured in the movie. The noirish moodiness, the atmospheric, tension-setting music, the whip-crack dialogue ...

Hold on, let me speak for a second about that dialogue. I could honestly watch a plotless Veronica Mars movie, just to hear the characters' back-and-forth banter. Rob Thomas does Joss Whedon one better, blending pulpy, rapid-fire quips with well-placed pop-culture riffs. It's music, baby. This is, truly, the good stuff, and we don't get enough of it in movies or TV. The writing is what made Veronica Mars so damn good back in its TV days, and it's what again separates it from the pack at the movies. For those who dismiss this as young adult fluff ... just listen to the characters talk and realize: this is less Hunger Games, more Maltese Falcon - with a dose of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer thrown in for good measure. This is where I'll also point out that the movie is funny. Really funny. And that's all driven by Veronica and the rest of the cast's multiple, dead-on zingers. The wittiness here goes a long way.

By the time the end-credits played (and we finally got to hear the full version of the show's fantastically-rocking theme song), I was in TV/movie-geek nirvana. I went into this movie with some trepidation. Would the characters seem awkward and old? Was I remembering the show through rose-colored glasses? Would the movie just be a nostalgia trip with no real substance? Or would Rob Thomas and co. shake thing up needlessly just to go against the grain? Really, there was no reason to worry. The VERONICA MARS movie is a rocking return to form and a rollicking success. Bell again nails it as Veronica, and the rest of the cast brings their A-game. But mostly, this movie just reaffirms that Neptune is indeed a living, breathing place. We needn't worry about it having abruptly disappeared from our TV screens all those years ago. The movie cements this as a world that persists, even when we're not watching. And it reestablishes Veronica as a character who will always be out there - always embroiled in a new mystery, always fighting the neverending fight to clean up Neptune and bring justice to those who need it brought. Back when the series was cancelled, Thomas re-pitched it to the CW as a revamped reboot - a move that would have drastically changed the show and sent Veronica to the FBI. But the whole arc of this movie is, in a way, about rectifying what would have been a damaging left turn for the show and for these characters. The movie has Veronica ditch her newly-acquired urban corporate lawyer persona for a back-to-basics approach - and so too does the movie, on a meta level, ditch the idea of a high-concept revamp - a way to please the masses - for a back-to-basics return to the core Veronica Mars concept at its best.  Veronica is too good of a character to change wholesale. Instead, the movie cleverly shows us why Veronica is who she is, and how the world of Neptune shaped and continues to shape her, and draw her back in to its seedy world of sun and shadow.

So come on now sugar: bring it on, bring it on - give us more. Long live Veronica Mars.

My Grade: A-

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