Friday, March 14, 2014

Fans Want S'more: "Veronica Mars" a fun, breezy diversion for all



Veronica Mars (2014) 
107 min., rated PG-13.

Having not seen a single full episode of the defunct 2004-2007 cult TV series for its three seasons on UPN-turned-The CW, "Veronica Mars" very well could have played like "inside baseball," all fan service rather than a stand-alone movie for a general crowd. But as it turns out, it's accessible for newcomers who aren't as well-versed and can't consider themselves "marshmallows." Six years after the show was canceled, creator Rob Thomas and star Kristen Bell launched a fundraising campaign through Kickstarter, breaking a record of 91,585 donors and raising $5.7 million for the movie to be made. Now seeing the light of day, the big-screen adaptation "Veronica Mars" is the first to be theatrically released by a major studio (Warner Bros.) on approximately 300 screens the same day it hits video-on-demand platforms, and it shouldn't have a problem finding an audience, "marshmallows" or not.

One thing is for sure: "Veronica Mars" will satisfy the itch of its pre-sold fan base as a love note to the rabidly devoted, but it's also a welcoming invitation to the uninitiated, who are brought up to speed in a two-minute "Previously on…" recap. Leaving the teenaged sleuthing back in her beach hometown of Neptune, California, the flip, spunky, and whip-smart private eye now lives in New York and wears her big-girl pants. Veronica is now engaged to Stosh 'Piz' Piznarski (Chris Lowell) and has just graduated from law school, acing an interview at the law firm Truman-Mann. When she comes to hear that a former classmate, pop star Bonnie DeVille/Carrie Bishop (Andrea Estella, taking the place of Leighton Meester), is found dead in her bathtub, Veronica goes back home to defend and help the prime suspect, Bonnie's armed services boyfriend, Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), also Veronica's former flame. Meanwhile, Neptune High is having a ten-year reunion to which her best friends, Wallace (Percy Daggs III) and Mac (Tina Majorino), will drag her, and the town has a corrupt new sheriff (Jerry O'Connell). "Too legit to quit" now, Veronica sacrifices her position at the law firm for Logan and her relationship with Piz. Can Veronica crack another case without breaking any laws?

Co-written by director Rob Thomas and screenwriter Diane Ruggiero, "Veronica Mars" taps into what made the three-season-running show so appealing and provided with it such a fervent cult following. Part and parcel of the film's value, Bell is wonderful and has never been better than she is here playing the title character. With moxie and quick wit, she is smart, tough, charming, funny, resourceful, and relatable. Veronica puts her new career path on the line for believing Logan didn't commit the crime, juggles the men in her life, and talks back to those who deserve it, like class mean girl Madison Sinclair (Amanda Noret) who hasn't at all changed. There's also a throughline linked to Veronica's alcoholic mother; like that addiction, Veronica can't stop entering the danger of solving mysteries, but by the end, she knows where she belongs. The dialogue is clever, funny, and snappy without seeming as if the writers sought for a pat on the back. The close-to-home mystery isn't obvious and stimulates enough interest. There's an array of supporting players, whose personalities may be condensed into one feature film, but they add a comfortable likability and all have chemistry with Bell, including the delightfully expressive Majorino floating in and out as Mac; Ryan Hansen, hilariously loose as loud-mouthed, party-hardy surfer Dick Casablancas; and Francis Capra, showing a nice turnaround as former biker-gang leader Eli 'Weevil' Navarro. It certainly feels like watching old friends catch up at a reunion. Many of the show's other favorites spring up to function the plot in small ways without being inorganically introduced. Of the bright additions to the Neptune universe, Gaby Hoffmann leaves a memorable imprint as Bonnie DeVille's biggest fan Ruby Jetson, which is only a slightly less eccentric variation on the actress' character from HBO's "Girls." Also, there are several amusing star cameos, to boot, which won't be ruined here.

"Veronica Mars" isn't always an unequivocal success in filling in the fans-only disconnect for casual audiences—Veronica's past and present relationship with Logan will only truly be weighted by the dedicated—but it sure works as a breezy, highly entertaining diversion. Better are Veronica's enjoyable and heartfelt interactions with her sheriff-turned-P.I. father, Keith (scene-stealing Enrico Colantoni), who can joke with his daughter and have a heart-to-heart with her, saying she's destined for greatness as a lawyer. Director Thomas brings an unremarkable but efficient style, considering he was working with a limited budget and a quick month of shooting. It looks like a slicker extension of the TV show that will play just fine at home, but he does expertly stage a climactic hide-and-seek, where Veronica hides in a long cabinet, as the light of each open cabinet door gets closer upon the killer finding her out. And, in a nice final touch, the show's dance-inducing title song "We Used to Be Friends" by The Dandy Warhols gets a reprisal.

Rewarding those who tuned in for a new case of the week with the Jessica Fletcher of Neptune on the small screen, the film still doesn't alienate non-marshmallows. If anything, it should convert everyone else and have them catching up on those past seasons, as there is plenty to enjoy here. What's more, the first "Veronica Mars" movie could just be the beginning for more franchisable potential.

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