Director: Rob Thomas
Cast: Kristen Bell, Jason Dohring
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We have never seen Veronica Mars. As Rob Thomas’ movie arrives on VOD, we ask: how does it play for non-fans of the show?
“Oh my God, it’s Veronica Mars!” cries an unknown 20-something from across a room when Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) enters. They’re one of many. And you can’t blame them: after nine years, the lead heroine of Warner Bros’ TV series has returned to her hometown of Neptune, California, where she made it through high school by becoming a private detective.
Neptune? Mars? What now? It might sound like a lot of backstory to take in, but Rob Thomas does a grand a job of getting the uninitiated up to speed: a swift five-minute introduction covers all the bases, including first, second, third and fourth base with former sweetheart Logan (Jason Dohring).
“Oh my God, Logan!” fans may well say at this point, while others will simply nod and smile. That’s the first obstacle: while we are told that the couple are old flames, for non-fans, the emotional baggage that comes with their catching up – mounted over weeks and weeks of stories – isn’t there. Fortunately, Bell and Dohring have great chemistry together, selling their history even to those haven’t bought the textbooks.
“Look at us, falling right back into our old rhythms,” deadpans Logan as he meets her at the airport. Thomas and co-writer Diane Ruggiero are clearly aware of the pair’s charm, focusing the script firmly on Logan, who is suspected of murdering his girlfriend, pop star Bonnie DeVille. At first, Veronica, who tells herself she has left the past behind, is busy lining up a job at a posh law firm – run by Jamie Lee Curtis – in New York. But when nostalgia comes calling, she drops everything and runs back to pastures old.
Nostalgia’s a big thing for the Veronica Mars movie, an explicitly foregrounded theme that fits Veronica’s post-modern voiceover. Narrating her own emotional journey, and second guessing herself every step of the way, the style can get a little too meta for the film’s own good – a hangover, perhaps, from Veronica’s small screen days that feels slightly clunky on a larger canvas.
That’s not the only thing that feels televisual: Neptune is consistently presented with neo-noir nods, from her cynical (and loyal) dad, Keith – also a veteran private eye – to Ben Kutchins’ widescreen visuals, but the California town never quite fills the big screen, preferring to stick with its roots for what ends up feeling like a stretched TV special.
We live in an age, it should be noted, where TV specials are no bad thing. But in extending that typical 60-minute runtime to an hour and 50 minutes, the twisting, turning story starts to lose its way; a police corruption sub-plot helps to pad out the second half but never quite goes anywhere. The rest of the time is made up by a parade of old (but not for newbies) familiar faces. Kristen Ritter’s Gia turns up, as do Percy Daggs III’s Wallace and Tina Majorino’s Mac. There’s even a cameo from a movie star to boot.
For fans, of course, this is what they’ve signed up for – in the case of those who backed the project on Kickstarter, literally. Veronica Mars has a specific audience and they have specific needs. And by heck, it delivers them.
For all its indulgent fan service, Thomas deserves credit for not blanking outsiders completely. Marshmallow or no, you don’t need three seasons of experience to enjoy Bell’s witty dialogue and Logan’s earnest protests of innocence. But as the snappy pace and neat technological wizardry effectively pauses to attend a high school reunion, you wonder if there were a smoother way to run through the series’ yearbook, or break away from previously-trodden ground. It’s fitting, therefore, that debutant Christine Lakin steals the show as Susan Knight, a hilariously unbalanced fan of Bonnie DeVille. The other newcomers to the universe, though, like Veronica’s New York boyfriend, Piz, are left forgotten and bland on the sidelines.
For Veronica, at least, she’s back where she belongs. That’s the secret to a TV show, so they say, making sure everything ends up the way it was at the start. But this isn’t a TV show: it’s a movie. Thomas toys with the temptation of moving on to do something more ambitious, but resists. Is it a smart decision? Is it merely laying the ground for another series? Veronica describes life in Neptune as an addiction. Whether she would second guess this step of her story or not, the Veronica Mars movie certainly gives fans one last fix, if not newcomers the urge to hit up the rest.
“Oh my God! It’s Veronica Mars!” people will cry as she walks back into her old room.
The others will smile and nod. But at least they’ll be smiling.