Sunday, March 16, 2014

Veronica Mars (Rob Thomas, 2014)

Good work, marshmallows?

A long time ago, we used to be friends there was a little TV show called Veronica Mars. Merrily plucking choice elements from film noir, Nancy Drew, high school dramas, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and more, the cocktail of influences coalesced into a smart and compelling drama, thanks in no small part to Kristen Bell's stellar work as the teenaged private eye. A critical darling from the offset, Veronica Mars, however, struggled to secure a commercially-viable audience in the deeply unpleasant world of network television. Although it nearly miraculously lasted for three seasons - in stark contrast to the truncated single runs of its near-contemporaries Firefly and Freaks & Geeks (more on both those later) - there was still the sense that Mars' inevitable cancellation came too soon, that there was still life in the characters and setting of Neptune. A follow-up was particularly anticipated since the entertaining but uneven third series struggled to maintain the high quality of its predecessors, as it awkwardly shifted away from season long storytelling into a series of 'mini-arcs' (surely a last ditch attempt to appeal to a more casual audience). Some might say season three was evidence the show had run out of steam, but in this writer's opinion anyway it was only a tad disappointing because it was abundantly clear there was the potential for more A-grade Veronica Mars. Indeed, the quality still shone through during season three's best moments.

Here we are, just under a decade since the pilot aired and seven years after The Bitch is Back ended the series' run. Fans, as they're liable to do, campaigned for more, and as you've probably heard a feature version of Veronica Mars was greenlit on the back of a wildly successful crowd-funding campaign. 91,000 fans might not be nearly enough to sustain a network TV series, but they were willing to donate over $5 million between them, confirming to Warner Bros. that a modestly budgeted feature film would at least make some money. Now, a year after the record-breaking crowd funding campaign, that last episode's title proves precient. Veronica, who at the end of the last season vowed to leave the toxic Californian township of Neptune for good, semi-reluctantly returns after her former beau Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring) is implicated in the murder of his popstar girlfriend / Veronica's former classmate. Our intrepid heroine, who has a lucrative legal career lined up as soon as she (inevitably) passes her exams, only intends visiting for the briefest of sojourns (catching up with her father Keith and few remaining friends in the process) but Neptune has a horrible way of sinking its teeth into her...

Here's the perpetual question when it comes to big-screen revivals of serialised television: who is this for? Is it an affectionate send-off and/or extension of the existing story? Or an attempt to score new fans and a possible further continuation? Veronica Mars attempts a bit of the latter camp, but most definitely fits into the former more often than not. As much as I dislike second guessing other people's potential responses to any given film, I'd urge anyone who hasn't watched the series to track that down first. Even as someone who'd love to see the film perform well and lead to more Veronica Mars somewhere along the line, I'd say this is almost definitively a film for those familiar with the show. Whereas, say, Serenity did an elegant job pleasing both fans and newcomers, it's hard to imagine anyone watching Veronica Mars cold enjoying it on anywhere near the same level as those who've watched the whole series. This is a bit of a unique situation, given that the film was at least partially funded by its fanbase, but definitely a solid grounding in the backstory is close to a prerequisite going in, as much as series creator turned film writer/director Rob Thomas attempts to ease the barrier of entry (including a bare-bones primer-cum-prologue). Heck, having not watched the series in a good few years, even I was struggling to recall all the various links and faces.

Yes, this film would make even the anime industry blush with its abundance of fan servitude - although thankfully it's handled in a warm, affectionate and playful manner (albeit arguably overdone). There are countless callbacks to the show - from throwaway lines of dialogue to the fact that pretty much every surviving recurring character from the show's 64 episodes pops in to say hi - many of them during an extended school reunion sequence. When one character asks Veronica "I thought you were in the FBI?", for example, it's a knowing reference to the brief 're-pilot' for season four Thomas shot lest the show get renewed - it has been retconned out of existence for the purposes of this feature. There's even a reference to Kickstarter! Again, all this namechecking and callbacking is likely to alienate non-fans who might struggle to keep up with the barrage of names, implied history and relationships. But Veronica Mars undoubtedly reintroduced as much of the series' characters, subplots and themes as they could have while still retaining a generally coherent standalone narrative. (Interestingly enough, Freaks & Geeks enthusiasts - and I unashamedly count myself among their ranks - will note several appearances from that great show's alumni, including the brief appearance of Dave 'Gruber' Allen and an amusing cameo from James Franco as himself).

To Thomas' credit, he manages the aforementioned narrative coherency with something approaching aplomb. The film ultimately plays out like something of a brisk but tightly focused fourth season, containing a murder-mystery plot that manages to draw in a huge range of recognisable supporting characters naturally and believably - from Mac (Tina Majorino) to Gia (Krysten Ritter), from Wallace (Percy Daggs III) to Leo (Max Greenfield) and many more besides (Dick, Weevil, Vinnie, Madison, Piz and on and on). The core mystery is fairly standard fare in some regards - blackmail, murder, surveillance, deception, a climactic bout of cat & mouse - but it's also pacy, exciting and realised with the series' trademark combination of wit, darkness and intelligence. Indeed, what always made Veronica Mars so enjoyable was the way it repurposed many genre tropes while making them seem fresh and entertaining again, and the film is no exception in that regard.

The movie is a generally winning joining of the old and the new. Neptune remains an inspired setting. As we're informed in the opening narration, it would be ground zero if the class war ever broke out, and this town is rife with social tensions and police corruption. Suffocatingly sunny during the day and seemingly constantly on edge at night, it's a delightfully contemporary setting for a hardboiled detective story. Most of the actors slot back into the roles effortlessly - the excellent Enrico Colantoni still stands out as Veronica's kind but determined father Keith, but pretty much everyone is on form. Nine years has definitely passed in this fictional universe, though, and that's most apparent in Dohring's characterisation of Logan - still the same guy, but his smarminess has been toned down and his voice has a newly reserved, even tired edge to it.

And then there's Veronica, as ever the star of the show. She's also aged - a little rusty in technique, perhaps, but as cheekily focused as ever (although the years have given her an even more pronounced charismatic cynicism). Where the story takes her is pretty fascinating. An addiction theme runs through her characteristically no-nonsense narration, as she wryly comments on the fact that she hates to love her obsession with the people and mysteries of her profoundly corrupted hometown. She can try to escape Neptune, but the little shit will keep dragging her back - an idea that nicely complements the subconsciously self-destructive and almost obsessive actions that have frequently defined the character. The film's ending (spoiler!) indicates she's destined to stay in Neptune for good - abandoning her promising career and boyfriend Piz (Chris Lowell) in the process - and it's equal parts satisfying and sadly inevitable. There's no longer the teenage detective angle that made Veronica Mars such a novel idea in the first place, but it's barely missed thanks to Bell comfortably slipping back into Veronica's shoes. She's more than simply another sassy female protagonist, and it's a pleasure to see her back doing what she does best.

There are some notable issues. The film's visual style is stuck in a sort of purgatory between TV and film - it just about works (there's some strong use of shadows, and the widescreen photography helps) but aspect ratio aside it wouldn't look out of place as a high quality television episode. The relentless throwbacks may even get too much for enthusiasts. It features a 'stealth car crash', which is one of my biggest cinematic pet peeves (although there is more credible intent here). But honestly, as someone who is very often disappointed and cynical when it comes to belated returns of my once loved TV programmes (Red Dwarf, I'm looking at you), Veronica Mars provided plenty of convincing reasons for this return trip to Neptune. It will struggle to win over new fans, but will likely please existing ones even when the typical loyal fanbase hyperbole is removed from the equation. Roll out the welcome wagon and leave it to beaver Rob Thomas, marshmallows: the bitch is indeed back.

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