NOTE: I can’t pretend any objectivity here — I am a fan of the television series, a Kickstarter supporter of the film, and a friend of one of the producers. I think I would have been capable of writing a bad review if the film was a disappointment, but thankfully it was even better than I hoped. With that caveat, on to the review:
“Veronica Mars” manages the near-impossible in exceeding the hopes of three different audiences: passionate fans of the three-year television series about a teen-aged detective who wanted more of the same, passionate fans of the television series who wanted to see what happened when the characters grew up, and the much bigger group — people who had never seen the series and did not even remember that there was one.
Writer/director Rob Thomas created the Veronica Mars television series, starring Kristen Bell (“Frozen”) as a teenager whose father was the sheriff of Neptune, California, until he was pushed out of office by a corrupt alliance between government and the local business. He became a private investigator, and Veronica began investigating, too, from the murder of her best friend and a school bus crash to hectoring and blackmail via social media. Like its better-known contemporary “Buffy,” the lead character was a smart, tough, capable teenaged girl coping with the intensity of adolescent traumas externalized as major, life-threatening events, all approached with equal resolve, equanimity, steadfast friends, a love triangle, and quippy dialogue. And it has a surprisingly sharp and astute portrayal of social and economic divisions. A large part of the appeal of the series was in watching Bell deliver a continuous stream of mots juste, with a “Gilmore Girls” depth of immersion in pop culture and understated wit. Fans included Stephen King, who described the series as, “Nancy Drew meets Philip Marlowe, and the result is pure nitro. Why is Veronica Mars so good? It bears little resemblance to life as I know it, but I can’t take my eyes off the damn thing.” A Kickstarter campaign for this film intended to raise $2 million raised $5 million and the results are likely to resonate throughout Hollywood, creating a powerful alternative to the current system for greenlighting film projects.
A two-minute recap brings us up to date. Veronica now lives in New York, a recent law school graduate, living happily with Piz (Chris Lowell), one of her love interests back on the show, who has moved on from a high school radio job to working at NPR (“This American Life’s” Ira Glass shows up for one of several star cameos). She is interviewing at prestigious New York law firms and happy to be creating a new life for herself. And then she is called back to Neptune. Her other former love interest, Logan (Jason Dohring) is suspected of murdering his girlfriend, their high school classmate, who had become a pop star. She promises Piz she will just go back long enough to get Logan a lawyer, but keeps extending her stay as she gets caught up, first in finding that “plausible alternative” to present to the jury, and then in finding out who really did it.
The mystery is absorbing, but it is the depth of characters and richness of the relationships that makes this movie so effective. Bell knows this character so well and inhabits her so fully that it lends depth to the bigger mystery — who will Veronica decide to be? Series co-stars like Enrico Colantoni as Veronica’s father, Tina Majorino and Francis Capra as old friends, and Ryan Hansen and Ken Marino as old frenemies are stand-outs, there are quick cameos from Bell’s real-life husband Dax Shepard and Justin Long, and James Franco contributes a very funny meta-moment as himself (stay past the credits for more). But the star here is Thomas, who has a sure hand in blending the drama, mystery, romance, and wit. Fifteen minutes in, I was a marshmallow.
Parents should know that this film includes brutal murders and attempted murders, guns, drowning, car crashes, some scary surprises and disturbing images, references to teen partying including drugs, sexual references and situation, and some strong and crude language.
Family discussion: Which character changed the most in ten years? What television series would you like to see brought back via Kickstarter?
If you like this, try: the “Veronica Mars” television series and the classic “Thin Man” movies