Thursday, March 20, 2014

Veronica Mars (2014)

Director: Rob Thomas
Starring: Kristen Bell, Jason Dohring, Krysten Ritter, Ryan Hansen, Francis Capra, Percy Daggs III,
Chris Lowell, Tina Majorino, Enrico Colantoni, Gaby Hoffman, Jerry O' Connell, Martin Starr, Ken Marino, Max Greenfield, Amanda Noret, James Franco
Running Time: 107 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
Following the announcement that beloved cult series Veronica Mars would be kickstarted into a feature film to simultaneously be released on VOD and into theaters, I was surprised just how much more interested I was in the controversial crowdfunding issue than actually seeing it return in any form. But after considering it, that indifference makes perfect sense. The first season of Rob Thomas' Veronica Mars is unquestionably flawless, deserving of its standing amongst the most creatively realized single season television dramas of the past decade. It took the unremarkable premise of a high school private eye and turned it into something that transcended the genre with its writing, tone and execution. Arriving at a time when serialized, self-contained storytelling wasn't popular and shows didn't revolve around strong female protagonists, telling one story throughout a season or even an entire series was unheard of. After turning loyal watchers into "fans" and forcing casual viewers to catch up later through word-of-mouth or social media, a cult was born.

In 2004 delivering one season of TV at such high quality was an anomaly. Not anymore. In fact, many showrunners have now done it multiple times, slightly diminishing Thomas' accomplishment, even if he got there first. A second solid season aired followed by a third that deserves to be forgotten and mostly is. But that first season is still magnificent and represents the best kind of episodic storytelling the medium has to offer. That's why it's so disappointing that network brass and even many fans insisted on turning the show into something it wasn't, failing to realize the gift they were given. They wanted it to be The Gilmore Girls or 90210 and the CW network responded by attempting it, causing the show to limp to the finish line in a far lesser state than it started. For further proof look no further than the fact that re-runs started regularly airing on SoapNet of all places.

With its legacy somewhat tarnished and that magical first season in the rearview mirror, trepidation toward this project is understandable. Worse yet, it exists to provide "fan service," which is partially responsible for unraveling the show to begin with.  Freed from the constraints of network television, this is a big test for Thomas, as we finally find it whether he was a single season wonder or it was outside factors that caused the series' eventual downfall. So with that in mind, how did he do?

Picking up nine years after the events of the third season, Veronica (Kristen Bell) has left her hometown of Neptune, California, graduated law school and moved to New York City, where she's in a relationship with college boyfriend "Piz" (Chris Lowell). While awaiting an offer from prestigious law firm Truman-Mann, she's contacted by her ex Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), who's been serving in the Navy and is under investigation for the murder of his girlfriend Carrie Bishop, a former Neptune High classmate who went on to find fame as troubled pop star "Bonnie DeVille." Veronica agrees to fly back to Neptune under the condition of helping him and his still obnoxiously hilarious best friend Dick Casablancas (Ryan Hansen) find an attorney to build a believable defense.

 With her ten-year class reunion approaching and the case becoming more complicated, Veronica's soon drawn back in to the chaotic life she thought she left behind, much to the chagrin of her former sheriff father Keith (Enrico Colantoni). He's running Mars Investigations while sickened by the corruption overrunning Neptune under sleazy Sheriff Dan Lamb (Jerry O'Connell). With the help of old friends Wallace (Percy Daggs III) and "Mac" (Tina Majorino), Veronica has to find Carrie's murderer and exonerate Logan, all while coming to terms with the past and figuring out what it means for her future. 

The movie answers one of its biggest questions right away in how much background Thomas intends to give the uninitiated, with a brief, narrated prologue that's quick and painless, yet doesn't waste the time of diehards who know every detail of the mythology. Archival footage marks the extent of Amanda Seyfried's role, as we find out how Thomas handles the absence of the series biggest star. Since her character's long dead, the passing acknowledgment of Lilly Kane seems to be a pretty easy solution. With a nine-year gap to be accounted for, it was the right move to keep the Veronica voice-over (which the series eventually fazed it out) since it's as good a device as any to catch viewers up to speed provided it isn't abused. Thankfully, it isn't.

Clever choices are also made with the opening titles and theme song, which I won't spoil. But what's surreal is just seeing the characters ten years later, but in the context of a feature film. It took some adjusting to since it does look and feel different with the sheen of a higher end production, yet still strangely the same. Visually speaking, it's the best VM has ever looked on a technical level with Thomas and director of photography Ben Kutchins capturing the color palette of the series' early days, as well as Neptune's noirish atmosphere.

The tease that age has mellowed Veronica and she's left her rebellious streak behind to settle down with Piz and start a legal career is short-lived. It isn't long before she's back home making quips and trading one-liners with her dad, the writing still as quick and snappy as before, and Bell's delivery of it just as perfect. She slides back into this character like riding a bike with the actress clearly relishing the rare chance to step back into the role she was born to play. In that respect, it's almost as if no time passed at all. What's interesting about the murder set-up is how it transforms Veronica back into the outsider she once was when the show began, bringing everything full circle. All fans can at least agree that the father-daughter relationship between Keith and Veronica is the most missed aspect of the show and Thomas definitely doesn't disappoint in following through with the full implications of that reunion.

Veronica's reconnection with Logan is admirably treated with a restraint I wasn't expecting considering my biggest concern was that relationship taking over the picture, much like it eventually did the series. If one thing can be pointed at as creatively torpedoing the show, it's that. Unsurprisingly, there's one scene involving this I could have done without, but at least it's built up to well and handled painlessly. Until Veronica joins a monastery, I'll just have to accept to the fact that the depiction of their relationship is a necessary evil, but one hardly as integral to the show's initial success as many believe. Dohring actually gives a really interesting performance here, doing away with some of the more milquetoast elements of Logan that emerged pre-cancellation while reintroducing the darker, angrier aspects of the character. We know he probably didn't commit the crime, but Dohring thankfully doesn't play it like that. While few will be happy to see Piz again but his presence does make story sense and Chris Lowell, who's done okay for himself since, is a much better actor now than then.           

What's most surprising is how serious everything is treated while still somehow retaining much of the fun. In a PG-13 rated film we're treated to swearing, bar fights and shootouts that wouldn't have been possible during the series' run due to budget constraints and network interference. And the class warfare aspect of Neptune is not only emphasized but kind of enhanced with a legitimate sense of danger looming. There's a feeling that the first time our favorite characters could actually be hurt, or perhaps worse.

The nine-year layoff for the characters is a blessing in disguise, as their aging assures the series can longer be pigeonholed into a genre it never quite belonged. It's also a slight detriment, since part of the original thrill came from a story of such epic scope revolving around high schoolers. Supporting players Wallace, Mac and Dick are given much more to do here than they were in all of the show's third season and help move along the plot rather than merely stop in for appearances sake. The big surprise in that regard is Weevil (Francis Capra) who's given a subplot that's almost downright shocking, playing on the character's shady past in a clever way.

Unexpectedly, the film is filled to the brim with cameos, one of the more notable coming from James Franco, who probably jumped at the chance to appear considering how he seems to have his hands in everything in pop culture. Bigger roles go to Gaby Hoffman as an obsessed Carrie Bishop impersonator who could also be a key witness/suspect in her murder and hugely successful show alum, Krysten Ritter, returning as Veronica's frenemy Gia Goodman. The part is expanded accordingly to capitalize on her presence, reminding us how we underestimated the actress' versatility the first go around.

My personal favorite recurring character, goofy private investigator Vinnie Van Lowe (Ken Marino!) also makes a comeback, integrated briefly into the case. And yes, Max Greenfield does show up as Deputy Leo. It's hard to think of any big names left out whose absence damage the film, with maybe the exception of the original Carrie Bishop, Leighton Meester. The murder plot was probably conceived with the actress in mind so her unavailability is a blow, as it's easy to imagine she could have brought a lot more to it now. Jessica Chastain or Aaron Paul returning just isn't realistic but boy would that have been a shock had either appeared.

There is some clunkiness to the central mystery, but what really does work is how the film incorporates modern technology and social media into the investigation of the crime. This is technology that didn't exist (at least to this extent) during the show's run, so it's only fitting for a series that was always slightly ahead of the curve to now be able to pull the trigger on it. Thomas and crew delivered as promised, wrapping the show's and its title character's return into a thematic package about the battle between holding on and letting go.

The idea that Keith wants better life for his daughter than one in Neptune and is downright disappointed and angry at the possibility she'd consider throwing it away really resonates. In fact, it resonates in a way the series hadn't at the end of its run. It does surprisingly look and feel like authentic Veronica Mars and there's far less of a drop-off in the quality of writing than you'd expect. It's really as good as it could have possibly been, at many points recalling the mood and tone of the first and second seasons rather than the far lesser one that succeeded them. And although it's been called it, this doesn't merely come off as a reunion show with Thomas attempting to do more than reassemble the cast and call it a day.

None of the events or characters feel jammed in and it's unnecessary for us to adjust our expectations for who is and isn't there like we did for Netflix's revival of Arrested Development. It's unfair to compare such wildly different reboots (in separate mediums nonetheless) but it's really the closest thing to this situation we've got, proving how creatively risky bringing back defunct properties can be. While a solid effort, even diehards couldn't claim that fourth season holds a candle to the previous three, or even slightly resembles the show it was.

The waters should have been even choppier for VM, but unlike AD, its saving grace is that it went out struggling with some unfinished business. And since the show's quality fluctuated and it didn't deliver three perfect seasons like that series did, expectations are lower. It also has to deliver one powerful extended episode instead of an entire season, with the catch being that it has to look and feel cinematic, which it does. Add to that the pressure of the mainstream paying attention because of this untested funding and distribution model. Casual eyes have never really been on this series before and even if it is made to appeal primarily to fans, there has to be some entry point for everyone else. Or does there?

Whether this film appeals to those who haven't seen the show doesn't really even matter. When you consider how much work it took to resurrect this and the circumstances under which it eventually happened, the movie's potential success is dependent on the fan base being just large enough to eliminate risk for Warner Bros. This is being sold as a product with preexisting loyalty and familiarity so casual viewers just won't have the same long-term investment in the characters. But that doesn't mean someone who's never seen an episode wouldn't enjoy it. It just means they'd likely enjoy it on an entirely different level. As a smart mystery thriller.

As much potential as there is for this saga to continue or for the series to undergo a full-blown resurrection, ending it here would also be fine. Rob Thomas and this cast should never have to beg for money or hustle this hard because Warner Bros. won't financially support the series. The studio couldn't even manage to follow through on their basic publicity and marketing obligations. But regardless of those issues, there's no denying the Kickstarter approach works best for a property exactly like this. It wasn't about making Veronica Mars "happen" since that ship sailed a while ago, but rather giving the series the victory lap it deserves. And they delivered, making this trip back to Neptune one worth taking.

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