SXSW 2014 Veronica Mars Review: Stuck in Orbit

Veronica Mars

Your thoughts about the existence of a Veronica Mars movie will almost certainly reflect how you will feel after watching it. It accomplishes so much of what you were afraid it would botch or totally forget and then some, but it rarely goes beyond that. It does nearly precisely what you’d want as a fan and what you’d expect as a non-fan from a Kickstart’d project, but it doesn’t stop it from being one of the most fun, defiantly charming films at the festival.

Veronica Mars, if you aren’t aware, is a full-length cinematic continuation of the mid-2000s television of the same name, unceremoniously cancelled after low viewership but great critical acclaim. It follows the trials and tribulations of the titular character Veronica Mars as she works triple duty as a student, assistant to her private detective father, and a rebel investigator in her own right. She goes through her best friend’s murder, an accused friend, and a serial rapist in a slick, neo-noir wrapper.

The movie picks up nine years after the conclusion of season three (the project itself a record-breaking Kickstarter, capping off after a rapid growth at $5.7 million last April). Veronica has moved to New York City to work at a prestigious law firm, leaving behind her troubled past of seeking danger, inability to easily trust, and being a delectably unpopular backbone to Neptune, California. But the storms of the West Coast seem to have followed her across the country when her ex Logan Echolls is accused for murder.

Played once again by Kristen Bell, we are told she has changed, and it’s visually reinforced as well. Perhaps (most likely) unintentional, Bell looks different enough for you to believe that this is a completely different person. Most likely a side effect of being filmed immediately following a pregnancy, the physical changes to Bell’s still bubbly and beautiful but more matured look helps sell the idea that she’s not completely the same girl we knew before.

She is, however, just as aggressively charming and spunky as before. In fact, in many of the returning characters (almost all of the ones you found yourself loving from the series), we still have their core essence to root for. This includes best friend Wallace Fennel is now a teacher back at Neptune High School and friend and technological expert consultant Cindy “Mac” Mackenzie, both still fiercely loyal, standup people that give as good as they get with Veronica. It’s like no time has passed at all.

If you understood all of that, then great. If you didn’t, then this is precisely the problem with the movie. It started as a project for the fans, it was brought to life by the fans, and now it exists almost solely for the fans. Even those that have some passing knowledge of the series will find themselves lost in the myriad of expansive and beloved lore from years before.

Veronica Mars

If it tells you anything, there is a conversation in the middle of the film that includes oblique references to the nonexistent-but-planned fourth season of the show. Not picking up on that won’t necessarily hurt your enjoyment of the film, but that’s the depth to which the movie goes to say, “Hey, you guys that gave money for this? Here’s your reward.”

That enmeshed understanding is going to help you gloss over a lot what fails as a movie (as opposed to fan service). The show was known for maintaining wholeheartedly its neo-noir shtick from its visual aesthetic to its signature verbal sparring. Sharp, pithy dialogue is still present in this mostly tight 107-minute package, but the punch is largely lacking from the nuance afforded to a television series.

Each week, the show would have 40-plus minutes to luxuriate on the emotional developments left over from seven days prior. The movie, running less than two hours, has to move forward on the basis of checking off plot points over nuanced character growth. Proof enough of that is the fact that the beloved and nearly series-defining relationship between Enrico Colantoni’s hip Keith Mars and daughter Veronica Mars is mostly gutted for the sake of uncovering the truth of Logan’s suspected crime.

Veronica Mars

And perhaps emblematic of its compressed production time (not entirely unexpected considering this is a full and robust feature made for under $6 million), the visual flair is similarly flat. The long, moody, lively shadows and wide-ranging colors of the show are largely missing from the film. Whereas we left a Neptune inexplicably covered in stained glass windows perpetually at dusk, we get neutrally color-corrected display of contemporary aesthetics.

But despite these contrasting problems, there’s still so much to love. Even with absolutely zero established knowledge of the show, Bell is equally compelling as she once was in this career-defining role. Intriguing, layered, compelling, and wholly engrossing, it’s almost impossible not to fall in love with Veronica almost entirely because of Bell’s performance. And perhaps a validation of the casting of the original show, the objectively delicious qualities of the returning cast similarly makes another in this revitalization mythos.

It’s still a difficult movie to talk about, however. It exists entirely as fan service, but it works as perfectly functional film. The problem, though, is that even a modicum of previously held knowledge exponentially increases its quality. So many assumptions you would have to make otherwise are known implicitly through having already experienced or knowingly seen from bygone years.

Veronica Mars

You don’t need explained to you the history of her current and persistent college boyfriend Piz, you don’t need it spelled out to you why Veronica would suspend her life-headed-for-comfort situation for uncertain and almost certainly painful mystery, and you don’t have to wonder why many of Veronica’s reunion encounters mean more than they reveal on the surface.

Most importantly, the dynamics of 09ers and low-class working stiffs doesn’t need to be laid out like a bear skin run. The interactions are inherently understandable (the series relegating the comprehension to a single line in the pilot), but the more esoteric bits will be lots on those that haven’t seen the show. It’s as if the movie was made as a paragon of dichotomous existence, though expanding far beyond a cynically composed double episode designed and directed by fans. (It feels fresh and uncompromising; but much of what its deliberate purpose falls under is, actually, fan service.)

It simultaneously does what it set out and needs to do but fails to do what it should have done. The jollies of cameos that mean more to you as a fan elevate them from choice yet brief performances to noteworthy experiences. My personal regard as the original show as one of the best things to be in existence and required viewing for writers says this is a lovely, unbreachable product, but my critic says this is a flawed but successful cinematic outing. Days later, I’m still conflict, but it’s still a worthwhile film after all.

Final Score: 7 out of 10

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