Thursday, March 27, 2014

Veronica Mars

Veronica Mars
Dir. Rob Thomas

2.5 out of 5

"Fan service" is an unusually loaded term when it comes to Veronica Mars, the improbable movie adaptation of the cult teen detective drama of the last decade, which ran for three low-rated but critically-acclaimed seasons.  Stymied by a lack of studio funding, creator Rob Thomas appealed directly to the show's fanbase on the crowdfunding website Kickstarter, where thousands ponied up over $5 million to get the movie made.  That's a lot of investors to satisfy, and for the most part Veronica Mars is pitched directly to and does right by those diehards, without whom the film wouldn't exist at all.

Almost a decade after the show's conclusion, Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) is a plucky law school grad in a happy relationship with college sweetheart Stosh "Piz" Piznarski (Chris Lowell).  But while she's moved past her former life as a junior private detective in class-conscious Neptune, California, she can't resist a friend in trouble - specifically her old flame, Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), a celebrity scion accused of murdering his pop star girlfriend.  Veronica drops everything and returns home to help Logan with his legal affairs.  This quickly escalates from helping him find a decent lawyer to getting personally involved in his case, all against the backdrop of her high school's ten-year reunion, conveniently providing access to all of Veronica's old friends and enemies.

But here is where the more common pejorative definition of "fan service" begins to apply to Veronica Mars.  Thomas has little incentive to shake things up, and instead attempts to cram in as many of the show's touchstones and characters while trying to construct a taut, tense mystery.  The result is a much more simplified version of Neptune, as familiar faces pop up as mile markers for the plot instead of the richly-conceived characters of old.   Still, seeing actors like Bell, Krysten Ritter, Ken Marino, and Ryan Hansen return to the roles that helped them kick-start their careers is a blast, and absorbing Thomas' rapid fire, pop culture-inflected dialogue is half the fun, even if the guffaw-to-groan ratio has slipped a bit.

With an attractive cast spitting snarky barbs at each other in a barely plausible and strikingly mature teenage world, Veronica Mars the show is a charmingly dated artifact of the mid-00s.  By adhering to this same formula in 2014, Veronica Mars the movie can't help but feel stuck in a frustrating yet oddly comforting rut.  It doesn't help that Thomas bites off more than he can chew by attempting to resolve the series' main love triangle, comment on the cycle of institutional injustice (via a half-baked police corruption subplot), and provide a satisfying conclusion to its self-contained mystery in one fell swoop.  It's a rushed, overstuffed mess that ditches Thomas' strong point of view in favor of catering to all potential audience desires - an approach that's overly cautious at best and hopelessly confused at worst, as when James Franco inexplicably cameos as himself to give Veronica one of her strongest leads.

Some stories just function better when spread out over the 20-plus hours of a TV season than crammed into 100 minutes of a feature film.  Fundamental differences in medium aside, however, I found the grassroots achievement of Veronica Mars tempered by the bittersweet emotions it evoked.  In witnessing how Veronica's world has remained unaltered, I was only more aware of the changes in my own.  That's the double-edged nature of nostalgia.  Veronica Mars may be an ultimately disappointing experience that vaguely approximates the show's glory days, but at least I can appreciate the way it reminds me of how Veronica and I used to be friends...a long time ago.

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