The acerbic, sly, and captivating drama series Veronica Mars was slightly ahead of its time. In addition to having a complex, compelling female character at the center (shock!), the cult TV show arrived before it could find a wider audience through new streaming platforms. Thanks to an overwhelmingly successful Kickstarter campaign, the smart-ass, cynical private detective has returned and moved to the big screen. As a feature film, Veronica Mars is able to cut straight to the A-plot, ditch the bloat of filling a 22-episode season, and get to the heart of a more complicated protagonist and her corrupt hometown. Although it overreaches by trying to tease out extraneous plotlines, creator and director Rob Thomas has created a film that will make the fans cheer but still appeal to those who aren’t “marshmallows”.
In high school, Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) worked as a private investigator with her father Keith (Enrico Colantoni), but in the opening scene we learn she decided to leave that life behind and become a lawyer. Right as she’s on the cusp of joining a high-powered law firm, Veronica receives a call from her old flame Logan (Jason Dohring), who is the prime suspect in the murder of his celebrity girlfriend. Even though Veronica and Logan haven’t spoken in nine years, she decides to return home to Neptune, a visit that happens to coincide with her 10-year high-school reunion. Although she arrives with the intent to consult Logan on finding a lawyer, her old habits resurface, and Veronica finds herself among old friends, enemies, and acquaintances as she investigates the case.
As a teenager, Veronica’s snarky attitude could be equal parts charming and irritating. Her comebacks and insults were top-notch, but they still came out of the mouth of someone whose guard was up so high that she sometimes even blocked off the audience. But as a 29-year-old, Veronica fits far more easily into the show’s noir vibe. Her voiceover, while still distinctly her own, would fit perfectly alongside the hardened gumshoes of 1940s crime films. She may be older and wiser, but the core remains the same.
This attitude and drive also creates the film’s central, compelling conflict. In the movie, Veronica thinks she’s gotten away from the hometown she hated, but discovers it’s in her blood. While this one-last-job/thought-she-was-out/pulled-back-in narrative isn’t new, it works in Veronica Mars because the movie frames it as an addiction. She’s good at her job, but her job isn’t good for her, and there’s a tragic element to that, which keeps her from being a “Mary Sue”. Veronica is back to her old tricks because that’s what it means to be a Veronica Mars story, but Thomas has the wherewithal to ask what that return would mean to this woman who always had a love-hate relationship with her hometown.
Thomas has also taken Neptune for an even darker turn, and the director keeps this just out of reach, which is frustrating rather than enticing. Knowing that Veronica Mars needed the support of the fans and the Kickstarter platform to exist, it comes off as slightly crass to start hinting at a sequel. While I’m sure fans will want to return, Thomas isn’t just laying out a more seedy Neptune, but also another story that could be picked up in sequel. However, it’s left dangling in this installment, and it becomes a distraction from the main plot. Thankfully, Thomas still knows how to weave a good mystery yarn, and without the need to stretch the story out to a 22-episode season, he can give most of his energy to one intriguing case.
The structure and vibe are what make Veronica Mars a success. Everything the fans loved is still in place, and it even has ambiance of a high school reunion as we briefly say hello to familiar faces and want to spend more time with old friends. But for newcomers, the film rarely feels exclusionary. They may wonder why a die-hard fan is getting excited when a character shows up or laughs at an inside joke, but from a plot/character perspective, it’s still a solid mystery. As for a fan like me, I can sympathize with Veronica; I thought I was out of Veronica Mars, but now I want to go back to the series and sink back into Neptune.