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Veronica Mars
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by Peter Sobczynski

"True Detective"
3 stars

Once upon a time, there was a fledgling television network known as UPN and in 2004, they debuted a television show named "Veronica Mars" that chronicled the adventures of a seemingly ordinary high schooler (Kristen Bell) who, fueled partly by rage at the murder of her best friend and and an incident when she herself was drugged and raped by a classmate, used the sleuthing abilities she learned from her beloved father, a disgraced cop-turned-private eye to solve crimes in the seething hotbed of corruption that was her hometown of Neptune, CA. Although the concept may have sounded more than a little dodgy at first blush, the end result was actually pretty brilliant thanks to the intelligent handling of the material by series creator Rob Thomas and the incredible, star-making performance by Kristen Bell in the central role. The show was a hit with critics and quickly developed a passionate cult following that expanded beyond the reach of its youthful target audience (my late father was a huge fan, one of the very few times in which our ordinarily disparate tastes in television overlapped) but it was always challenged in the ratings and after limping through three highly regarded but skimpily viewed seasons, it was cancelled.

As with many cancelled shows these days, an online campaign to bring "Veronica Mars" to the big screen began almost immediately. Unlike most such fanboy frivolity, which usually overlooks the fact that the talent involved has presumably moved on to other things, both Thomas and Bell were actively enthused with the idea but Warner Brothers, who owned the rights, were skeptical that people would be willing to go out and pay to see something that they weren't exactly clamoring to see when it was in their homes for free. After at least one proposed film version fell through, Thomas and Bell went to Kickstarter as a way of raising the necessary funding and Warner Brothers told them that if they could raise $2 million, they would produce a low-budget film that would go to the VOD market and perhaps even get a few theatrical play-dates as well.

To the studio's astonishment, that goal was reached only hours after the fundraising began and in response, the studio kicked both the budget and the distribution plans up a notch and as a result, "Veronica Mars" is now appearing this weekend at a theater or VOD system near you in a move that will no doubt serve as an inspiration to fanboys of all stripes that there is still hope for a screen edition of their own personal cancelled-before-its-time favorite. (If anyone is forming a legitimate drive to fund a big-screen take on the late, lamented "Strike Force," I promise here and now to kick in a few of my own hard-earned dollars.) As an admirer of the original series, I am delighted that "Veronica Mars" managed to overcome the seemingly insurmountable odds in order to get turned into a movie--this is the kind of undeniable happy ending that too often eluded its heroine in the past. I only wish that the resulting film had been just as interesting and innovative as the process through which it came to be.

Picking up nine years after the open-ended series finale (which had been designed to allow for a proposed fourth season featuring Veronica in the FBI), "Veronica Mars" kicks off with a brief prologue to get newbies up to speed and then reveals that Veronica has put her sleuthing days behind her, went through law school and is living with perennial nice guy Piz Piznarski (Chris Lowell) while interviewing for a position at a top law firm. (Jamie Lee Curtis makes a cameo as a headhunter whose interview fills in a few extra blanks). Everything seems to be going her way and it is at that moment that things go sideways with the announcement that Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring)--Neptune's perennial overprivileged bad boy, occasional murder suspect and Veronica's on-again/off-again boyfriend back in the day--is in the news as the chief suspect in the murder of his latest girlfriend, a pop star who was also a fellow classmate of his and Veronica's at Neptune High. Having previously vowed that she was through with Neptune in general and both detective work and Logan in specific, she nevertheless agrees to fly home for a couple of days to see her father (Enrico
Colantoni) and help Logan pick a decent lawyer.

Of course, vowing and doing are two different things and Veronica has hardly arrived in Neptune, which has grown even more corrupt in her absence with the arrival of a sleazy new sheriff (Jerry O'Connell) willing to do anything to insulate his corporate masters from the law, before she is digging her old detecting accoutrements out of storage and snooping around for clues. Before long, Veronica becomes convinced that Logan is being framed for his girlfriend's murder and finds herself pushing her own future to the side in order to prove his innocence. In order to do so, she has to cut through a web of hidden cameras, multiple motives and long-buried secrets involving the likes of party girl Gia Goodman (Krysten Ritter), Logan's douchey pal Dick Casablancas (Ryan Hansen) and another classmate (Gaby Hoffman) who was an overly obsessed fan of the singer. While putting the pieces together, Veronica faces threats, intimidation and, perhaps most terrifying of all, her 10-year class reunion that just happens to be going on that weekend as well. She also has to face the knowledge that she may not be as through with detective work and Logan as previously assumed.

Although ostensibly a mystery show, the thing that made "Veronica Mars" so brilliant on television was that it wasn't just another whodunnit with a questionable gimmick. The extended framework of a series allowed for a greater emphasis to be placed on Veronica and her relationships with her father (one of the great father-daughter relationships in modern television), Logan and her various friends, associates and frenemies--in the show's best moments, the mystery aspect was often little more than an afterthought. In bringing the show to the screen, it feels as if Thomas and co-writer Diane Ruggiero have taken what could have plausibly served as a season-long story arc and compressed it down into 100 minutes. The trouble with this approach is that in trying to reduce things down to an acceptable feature length, Thomas and Ruggiero have been forced to put more of an emphasis on the mechanics of the plot than on the character relationships. That would be fine if the plot was truly amazing but it is pretty ordinary as these things go and the various coincidences and logical leaps that are required to move things along stand out even more when jammed together rather than spread out over the course of several months.

Another problem with the film is that it never really takes advantage of its new artistic surroundings. There have been cases in the past of short-lived TV shows making the leap to the big screen--"Police Squad!" and "Firefly" immediately to mind--but in those cases, the respective spin-offs--"The Naked Gun" and "Serenity"--at least looked and felt like movies. "Veronica Mars," on the other hand, looks and feels like a television episode that has been ported directly to theaters--it feels like a throwback to the days when actual television production like the pilot episodes of the old "Buck Rogers" and "Battlestar Galactica" shows were released as films by Universal Pictures as a way of squeezing a few more bucks out of them with minimal effort. On VOD, it will probably look just fine but anyone spending $10 or so to see it in a theatre will probably find themselves wishing that Thomas had spent a little more time one making it seem more like a genuine movie instead of expending his energy lacing it with the kind of obscure in-jokes that will invoke smiles of delight from the hard-core fans and scowls of confusion from everyone else.

And yet, while it doesn't quite work as a whole, there are a lot of fun elements on display in the film. The screenplay is filled with the kind of hilariously sardonic one-liners that might have come across as contrived if not for the fact that they are so expertly delivered and when it takes a breather from the plot to concentrate on Veronica's relationships with her dad and Logan, the proceedings improve dramatically. The class reunion sequence is a standout scene in the way that it starts off as a barely disguised effort to bring in as many old characters from the show as possible for a few minutes and gradually develops into a scene that not only helps further the plot but allows Veronica a rare moment of triumph over her one-time tormenters. Similarly, there is another sequence that appears to have been shoehorned in as an excuse to let a well-known face show up for a few minutes (and a special wave of the middle finger to assbag Peter Travers for needlessly revealing their identity in his review) but it plays so well that it actually works (and be sure to stay through at least the first chunk of the end credits for more of this). The best thing about the film, as was the case with the series, is the performance by Kristen Bell as Veronica--despite the long layoff, she slips back into the character's unique groove so strongly that one is almost willing to forgive all the crappy movies that she has done in the subsequent years.

Watching "Veronica Mars" is a lot like attending a typical class reunion. You get to revisit old friends and old times and while that is fun for a while, those wishing to look to the future instead of simply rehashing the past are likely to come away from it feeling a little disappointed. Yes, fans of the show will no doubt like it but even they may come away from it thinking that it is a little too familiar and reliant on the tried and true for its own good while newcomers will likely just be baffled by the whole thing. While I can't quite recommend "Veronica Mars"--at least not until it hits the tube itself--I hope that it is enough of a success, even on its own modest terms, to convince all involved to some day give the character and her fans the movie that they so richly deserve.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=26150&reviewer=389
originally posted: 03/13/14 18:38:43
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 SXSW Film Festival For more in the 2014 South by Southwest Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

5/22/14 KC I enjoyed the movie! Plot was interesting enough; liked seeing the cast do their thing 4 stars
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  14-Mar-2014 (PG-13)
  DVD: 06-May-2014


  DVD: 06-May-2014

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