Sunday, March 16, 2014

Veronica Mars: Back on the case

Veronica Mars (2014) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rating: Rated PG-13, for profanity, sexual content, drug content and violence

By Derrick Bang

Rob Thomas obviously is an honorable fellow, and he deserves considerable credit.

Veronica (Kristen Bell) is surprised to discover that yet another intimate video of Logan
(Jason Dohring) and his recently murdered girlfriend has been posted to the Internet,
further swaying public opinion into believing that he's guilty of the crime. But this begs
the more pressing question: Who shot this footage, and how?
Mindful that his big-screen Veronica Mars project owes its very existence to the crowd-funded Kickstarter campaign that raised $5.7 million, Thomas — as director and co-scripter, sharing the latter credit with Diane Ruggiero — did his very best to deliver a film that meets fan expectation and smoothly updates events from the cherished 2004-07 TV series ... while also functioning as a self-contained adventure that (hopefully) is approachable to first-time viewers with no reference to the original show.

A tall order, and one that Thomas mostly pulls off.

Full disclosure demands that I acknowledge being one of the 91,585 Kickstarter backers, from 3,655 different cities in 88 countries, who pledged some $$$ to help create this film. It made perfect sense to me, since I’ve also (for example) supported PBS programming with pledges since being old enough to write checks.

As one of the show’s longtime fans — star Kristen Bell refers to us as “marshmallows” — I’m quite pleased by the results. That said, this big-screen Veronica Mars looks and feels less like a full-blown movie, and more like a two-part television episode granted a bit more budgeting juice. I recall, back in the day, that several of the 1960s Man from UNCLE two-parters were re-cut and released theatrically, particularly in foreign countries; this Veronica Mars update shares that pedigree.

Back during Hollywood’s golden age, this would have been a respectable B-feature. Nothing wrong with that; indeed, many so-called B films are remembered far more fondly today, than the higher-prestige A pictures with which they shared billing.

By way of contrast, the many Star Trek films that followed the original show’s three 1960s seasons definitely look like big-screen spectaculars quite far removed from their humbler TV origins. Joss Whedon’s Serenity, as well, granted impressively opulent closure to the short-lived Firefly, which had gone off the air several years earlier.

It’s an intriguing distinction, perhaps having something to do with the modest, easily relatable sensibilities that made Veronica’s television adventures so approachable in the first place. Veronica also owed her quick popularity, in part, to good timing: Buffy the Vampire Slayer (also from Whedon) had just gone off the air, and Thomas’ plucky high school heroine — and the coterie of friends, frenemies and enemies she gradually accumulated — admirably filled the niche left empty after Buffy had staked her last blood-sucker.

Thomas shares Whedon’s skill at blending quirky characters with intriguing storylines and sassy, often witty dialogue; the results (in both shows) also were seasoned with up-to-the-second pop soundtracks that added a hip vibe to narratives that unapologetically indulged in melodramatic touches that could have been ripped from afternoon soap operas. In both cases, we identified with the angst-laden heroines because they were social outcasts, forever at odds with their snootier, wealthier, clique-laden classmates.

That being the case, I’m not sure Veronica ever could have the crossover appeal of, say, Star Trek. It therefore seems unlikely that this big-screen Veronica Mars will play well for newcomers, but time will tell. Meanwhile, the show’s original fans will be delighted.

Following a title credits sequence that deftly recaps key events from the TV show’s three seasons, augmented by Bell’s often wry (and perfectly delivered) narration, we’re introduced to a Veronica who has moved on, abandoning her often frustrating California adventures for life as a soon-to-be-newly minted lawyer in New York City. She has made a comfortable home with longtime boyfriend Stosh “Piz” Piznarski (Chris Lowell), and she’s interviewing at a prestigious law firm, where she impresses Gayle Buckley (a nifty cameo by Jamie Lee Curtis).

And Veronica has absolutely no intention of attending her upcoming 10th anniversary reunion at Neptune High School: far too many bad memories.

But fate intervenes in the form of breaking news, as she learns that pop singer Bonnie DeVille — an old Neptune High classmate — has been found murdered under unusual circumstances. Worse yet, the accused killer is her boyfriend, Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), who, back in the day, was in and out of relationships with Veronica. So, even though she hasn’t seen him for years, Veronica isn’t entirely surprised when Logan calls her for help.

You can practically hear Veronica quoting Al Pacino’s line, from Godfather III: “Just when I thought I was out ... they pull me back in!”

Expecting solely to help Logan find a good lawyer, Veronica reluctantly returns to Neptune. The coastal California community always was a festering brew of class warfare — think Malibu gone very, very bad — but things have worsened during the intervening years, with the wealthy having amped up their hatred of the city’s so-called “bad elements.” The local police force is inept and corrupt: no surprise, given the guiding hand of Sheriff Dan Lamb (Jerry O’Connell at his smarmy best).

Although Veronica’s father, Keith (Enrico Colantoni) — still a practicing private detective — is delighted by his daughter’s unexpected visit, he worries about old patterns re-establishing themselves; then, too, he never really cared for — or trusted — Logan. And things look pretty bad: Logan was found at the murder scene at the time of Bonnie’s death, and everybody knows that their tempestuous relationship had frayed badly during recent months.

Still, the situation is laden with intrigue, starting with a Bonnie Deville wannabe — Gaby Hoffman, as Ruby Jetson — with a fannish crush so overwhelming that she’d do anything to be in her idol’s shoes, which also means using any means to date Logan. Additionally, intimate video footage of Bonnie and Logan keeps popping up on the Internet, leading Veronica to wonder precisely how such images could have been obtained ... which points to Vinnie Van Lowe (Ken Marino), once a rival Neptune pee-eye, albeit an ethically challenged one, and now a celebrity sleaze-monger.

On a happier note, Veronica is greeted warmly by longtime best friends Wallace (Percy Daggs III), now a Neptune High teacher; and Cindy “Mac” Mackenzie (Tina Majorino), who parlayed her tech skills into a posh IT job. Less happily, our heroine also renews wary acquaintance with a few of the upper-crust snots who never left Neptune: the arrogant Dick Casablancas (Ryan Hansen, who gets many of this film’s best lines) and the equally condescending Gia Goodman (Krysten Ritter), who has attached herself to the politically ambitious Luke Haldeman (Sam Huntington).

And, just as various events kept leading back to the unsolved murder of Veronica’s best friend, Lily Kane (a young Amanda Seyfried), during the first TV season, details in this new case start pointing to a friend of Bonnie’s who drowned, under somewhat odd circumstances, a few years back. Might there be a link?

Bell hasn’t lost the blend of resourceful savvy and ill-advised impulsiveness that made her sleuthing character so engaging a decade ago. At the same time, she understands that our fondness for Veronica has much to do with her vulnerability. On the surface, she may give as good as she gets while suffering contemptuous put-downs from Neptune’s privileged elite; at the same time, Bell’s wounded expressions, once out of public view, reveal the degree to which such slights still hurt.

Doesn’t matter how old we get: We helplessly fall into some of the same patterns that haunted us as teens and young twentysomethings, and allow ourselves to be hurt by people who don’t deserve to wield such emotional power.

Bell’s dynamic with Colantoni remains just as entertaining: definitely one of the best father/daughter relationships ever concocted. And it’s easy to see where Veronica gets her mischievous side; Colantoni’s Keith Mars can be just as reckless when donning the mantle of rescuing white knight. His confrontation with two of Sheriff Lamb’s thuggish deputies is particularly choice.

I do miss Keith and Veronica’s dog, however. Couldn’t this story have found room for a Backup II?

Hoffman is a hoot as the obsessed Ruby: definitely a gentle poke at the behavior of fans who carry their adulation too far. Ritter turns Gia into a delectable, opportunistic femme fatale: a woman who’ll cozy up and be best buds if it suits her purposes, and then would turn on you at the blink of an eye.

It would have been nice to spend more time with Daggs and Majorino, since Wallace and Mac were such an integral part of Veronica’s life, back in the day. They contribute some essential assistance in this new caper, but their actual screen time is minimal ... possibly because so much time is devoted to Veronica’s prickly reunion with Logan. Dohring never was one of this repertory company’s stronger actors, and Thomas — as director — leaves this film’s grown-up Logan a bit too bland.

The mystery is solid, though, with enough sidebar issues to require full attention on the part of viewers. Actually, I suspect most longtime fans will want (or even need) to watch this film twice: the first time to bathe in the vicarious thrill of seeing so many familiar faces — some of them returning from quite obscure first-season origins — and a second time to concentrate more fully on the twisty plot.

As was the case with Serenity and so many of the Star Trek films, this fresh visit with Veronica Mars definitely is a homecoming. Thomas signals this immediately, with a cover of the original show’s iconic theme song: “We Used to Be Friends,” performed here by Alejandro Escovedo, rather than The Dandy Warhols.

Granting big-screen exposure to a beloved TV series is nothing new, of course; it goes all the way back to Peter Gunn, when creator Blake Edwards followed a similar three-year television run (1958-61) with a stylish 1967 film. But such a resurrection never has been handled this way before, and whether crowd-funding becomes an alternative movie business model ... well, that remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, Veronica’s marshmallows are certain to have a good time with their return trip to Mars.

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