Movies Without Pity

Veronica Mars: Back in the Neptune Groove

by Ethan Alter March 13, 2014 2:39 pm
<i>Veronica Mars</i>: Back in the Neptune Groove

In hindsight, it's a good thing that Rob Thomas's original plan to extend the lifespan of his low-rated teen detective series Veronica Mars by packing the title character off to the FBI was deep-sixed by CW executives, and not just because the ten minute pitch reel for that version of the character is pretty terrible. Making the ever-intrepid Veronica a Fed might have been a logical career path for her, but it also would have cut her off from the life blood of the show: the sunny, seedy town of Neptune, CA, which provided her with plenty of mysteries to solve as well as a deep bench of richly-drawn characters to befriend or bedevil her. Thomas himself clearly recognizes how important Neptune was and is to his heroine, because he smartly makes that relationship the central focus of the long-awaited, fan-funded movie, also called Veronica Mars, which continues Veronica's story by bringing it all back home.

In the seven years since the show fled the airwaves, Veronica (Kristen Bell, returning to her signature character without missing a beat) herself has fled Neptune, first for Stanford and then New York, where she's settled down with Piz (Chris Lowell) -- the generic nice guy she's with primarily because that's where her "boyfriend roulette wheel" stopped when the series ended -- and is poised to trade her sleuthing career for the life of a big-city lawyer. But then her past literally comes calling with a cross-country plea for help from Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), the bad boy rich kid she never knew how to quit despite his propensity for trouble. And surprise! Her ex is in hot water again, for murder no less. And, just like in the series pilot a decade ago, the victim is his girlfriend -- and a classmate of Veronica's, though not her best bud this time -- Carrie Bishop (Andre Estella taking over a part originated by Leighton Meester). Reluctantly flying home for what she insists will just be a quick legal consultation and a chance to visit her dad and detective mentor, Keith (Enrico Colantoni, still one of the all-time great TV fathers), Veronica inevitably experiences her own Dark Knight Returns moment, getting her detective gear out of storage and leaping back into the game to clear her ex's name and bring justice back to a town that has only grown more corrupt in her absence. And just like Miller's Batman, she realizes what a junkie she is for the rush of slipping out into the Neptune night, especially when riding shotgun alongside the soulful Logan; she tried to drown that side of her out… but her voice was weak.

Truth be told, the "Who Killed Carrie?" mystery is something of a bore as far as the details of the case go, certainly when placed alongside the "Who Killed Lily?" question that drove the show's first -- and best -- season. The intensely personal connection that Veronica had to Lily, as well as the way the tendrils of the crime extended out into the community at large, invested that story with enormous dramatic stakes. And on a certain level, the movie seems well aware that this case is really just an excuse to move Veronica around the Neptune map, encountering old friends and foes, thus allowing for a roll call of familiar faces that allows the fans/investors feel they've gotten their money's worth. It's a reunion tour that hits just about everybody in the Veronica Mars yearbook, from obvious favorites (Wallace, Weevil, Mac, Vinnie, Gia) to deeper cuts (Celeste Kane, Luke Haldeman). There are some notable absences though, so if you're going in hoping to hear a "Where are they now?" shout-out to the likes of Duncan Kane, Mallory Dent or Caitlin Ford, those names are lost to Neptune history.

Mindful that there's the slight chance someone unacquainted with Veronica Mars might watch the movie -- possibly out of their own free will, but more likely under duress -- Thomas slips into pilot-speak for many of these encounters, having Veronica sum up in a line or two what her exact relationship to the cameo in question is. (The clunkiest reintroduction by far has to be Max Greenfield's drive-by as dopey Deputy Leo, who Bell greets as if she's reading the character description off his Wiki entry.) Other callbacks, meanwhile, pass by unexplained, whether it’s a Big Apple busker busting out a version of the show's Dandy Warhols-performed themed song as Veronica passes by (a moment that's equal parts amusing and groan-inducing) or Veronica pulling the same bit of identity theft to fool Neptune's current sheriff Dan Lamb (Jerry O'Connell) that she successfully used on his deceased brother, Don Lamb.

Confession time: I'm not an O.G. marshmallow, but I mainlined the series before seeing the movie and I'm thankful I put in the advanced legwork, because: 1) Dubious third season aside, Veronica Mars was a generally good, and occasionally great show, and 2) I don't know what I would have otherwise have gotten out of a film that's so tailored towards an ultra-specific audience. I wouldn't say that Veronica Mars is necessarily impenetrable to newbies; Thomas's zippy dialogue is fun to listen to and there's a palpable sense of camaraderie amongst the ensemble that will probably engage even those viewers meeting them for the first time. But the foundations of the narrative -- not to mention its various payoffs -- are all built on the ashes of the show, to the point where I'm not convinced Veronica's reunion tour will truly satisfy anyone outside her inner circle. And even though I personally enjoyed watching an older Mars reacquaint herself with Neptune, no small amount of disappointment set in as I realized Thomas was guiding the proceedings to an ending that would reinforce the series' status quo. (That's where the movie really deviates from the Dark Knight Returns template; where Miller approached that assignment as writing the final Batman story, Thomas intends to use this as the springboard to more adventures, even seeding in "Next time on" teasers along the way.) Other, more devoted fans will likely disagree, but I found it mildly depressing -- rather than appropriately fitting -- for Veronica to have come so far, only to end up in the same place. And I don't specifically mean Neptune, rather some of her professional and, more importantly, personal choices, as her tendency towards on-again, off-again romances got tiresome well before the series finale.

But that's what the Kickstarter gimmick that allowed for the existence of Veronica Mars hath wrought. On the one hand, it's been exciting to watch the character returned to life, borne on the backs of her empowered fanbase. But, as Thomas has openly admitted in interviews, that fanbase significantly impacted the way he wrote the movie, making the Veronica Mars that rare example of a continuation of a beloved property that doubles as both an in-continuity new work penned by the original creator and a piece of fan-fiction. (And, in fact, fan-fiction authors would probably take more liberties with the mythology than Thomas does here, especially in the romance department, where the couplings could -- and probably do -- range from Veronica/Weevil and Mac/Wallace to Mac/Veronica and Logan/Keith.) Like an artist back in the Renaissance days, Thomas understands that he's being paid to please his patrons and happily caters to them even when it impacts the quality of the overall work. (One of his biggest missteps is setting up a storyline for fan favorite Weevil, only to push it to the margins as suddenly as its introduced because he simply doesn't have the screentime to deal with it.) Nevertheless, one can't accuse him of failing to deliver on their investment overall. Furthermore, thanks to its low budget and distribution strategy (a limited theatrical release, coupled with same-day VOD availability), Veronica Mars stands a strong chance of performing well enough to allow for the future installments he's obviously hoping for, maybe paid for by the studio this time. Should that come to pass, though, he's going to have to make a choice. Who does he care more about -- Veronica or her fans?

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