For most of the past year, the conversation surrounding Rob Thomas‘ Veronica Mars has been about the way it was made. Now that the film premiere has finally arrived, though, the talk can turn to what he’s made. In an ideal world, Veronica Mars would serve the dual purpose of satisfying existing Marshmallows, as Veronica Mars devotees call themselves, while making new ones.
On the first count, I can say as a longtime fan (I was one of the 91,585 who contributed to the Kickstarter) that the sequel just about lived up to my expectations. On the second, it’s harder to judge. For all its imperfections, though, it unmistakably delivers in one respect: It left me wanting much, much more.
As Veronica, Kristen Bell is as wonderful as ever. She’s done all kinds of work since the original show ended in 2007, but for my money none of her other projects have made as great use of her talents as Veronica Mars has. The character still has a spiky edge and a soft heart, and Bell glides between warm sentiment and acid-tongued wit with an ease that most actresses of her generation should envy.
The movie around her, though, is less impressive. To be sure, fans will get what they paid for. There are cameos aplenty, one-liners by the truckload, and more romantic tension than you could shake a stick at. What the picture lacks are the jaw-dropping twists and emotional gut-punches of the series’ best plotlines. You’ll have to settle, instead, for a mildly diverting murder mystery studded with lots of fun moments. It’s still a perfectly good yarn, but doesn’t quite clear the high bar Veronica Mars has set for itself.
When the film opens, our heroine is preparing for a new life as a hotshot Manhattan lawyer. During one job interview, a potential boss (Jamie Lee Curtis) asks Veronica about the P.I. license she was issued when she turned 18, giving Veronica the ideal opportunity to rattle off a bunch of backstory. She concludes by promising, “I don’t do that anymore.” She’s not, she claims, the same damaged, distrustful girl she was back then.
But anyone who’s ever seen a movie will know exactly what happens next. Just when she thinks she’s out, they pull her back in. “They” in this case is her ex-boyfriend Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), who opens his first phone call to her in nearly a decade with a familiar plea: “I need your help, Veronica.” His pop-star girlfriend Bonnie Deville (Andrea Estella) has just been murdered, and he’s the prime suspect. So Veronica packs her bag and jets back to her SoCal hometown of Neptune to help him, promising her current beau Piz (Chris Lowell) that she’ll be back in time for his parents’ visit.
The new case, her first in years, offers many chances to bring back familiar faces including Mac (Tina Majorino), Wallace (Percy Daggs III), Vinnie (Ken Marino), and Dick (Ryan Hansen); the ten-year high school reunion, which oh-so-conveniently happens to be taking place at the same time, provides many more. Thomas also integrates new characters like Gaby Hoffman‘s nutty Ruby and Martin Starr‘s privileged Cobb so seamlessly, even longtime fans may forget they weren’t part of the sunny-but-seamy Neptune landscape to begin with.
As always, though ,the two most crucial relationships in Veronica’s life are those with her father Keith (Enrico Colantoni) and her ex, Logan. The father-daughter bond is as strong and as loving as it ever was, while Keith’s frustration over Veronica’s recent decisions provides an interesting wrinkle. He’s elated at her return — for diehard Marshmallows, his face when he first spots her will be worth the price of admission alone — yet terrified she’ll stay. “Don’t let this town take you down like everyone else,” he warns her. In the movie as in the series, Neptune is its own character, with its own powerful pull.
Veronica’s renewed relationship with Logan is less successful. During the show’s original run, the pair had what Logan described as an “epic” romance: “spanning years and continents, lives ruined, blood shed.” On paper, the flame between them still burns. Onscreen, though, some of that old spark is lost. I even found myself rooting for Veronica to go back to Piz at points. Horror of horrors. Had you told me even two weeks ago that I’d be siding with Team Piz, I would have laughed in your face.
Why the romance left me cold is difficult to explain. Part of it is simple chemistry. Bell and Echolls still clearly share an affection for one another, but the balance just feels off after so many years apart. Perhaps the bigger issue — with the Veronica/Logan love story, but also with the movie as a whole — is that Veronica isn’t a high school kid anymore. Her self-destructive tendencies read as much more alarming that she’s an adult on the verge of a high-powered career, instead of a teenager stuck in a lousy hometown. It’s not just her. All the characters’ actions have more weight because they’re in their 20s, not their teens.
And Thomas seems to get that. There’s a moment when Veronica asks Wallace, now a teacher, to steal an old student file for her. The old Wallace would have sighed in exasperation, but he would have done it. The new Wallace firmly refuses, since he has an actual job at stake. But Thomas doesn’t get much of an opportunity to explore what’s new about Neptune, or how the world works now that his characters are grown. He’s too beholden to the fans, and too uncertain of the franchise’s future, to dive headfirst into virgin territory.
But he shows just enough of that brave new world to show us what could come next. Veronica Mars works well as an epilogue, but — without giving too much away — sets up the beginnings of a reboot. Lord knows there’s room in the current cinematic landscape for a grown-up procedural franchise. With the film, Thomas has already done the work of proving that Veronica Mars could be a kick-ass one. Now all the Marshmallows have to do is make this film into such a success, Warner Bros. has no choice but to greenlight the next film.
/Film rating: 7.0 out of 10.0