Sunday, April 20, 2014

Veronica Mars (Film) (Rob Thomas, 2014)

Veronica Mars Film Poster

Like Firefly or Arrested Development, the Veronica Mars TV series was one of those beloved but underperforming shows "canceled too soon," whose cult fan base never really waned but perhaps even grew over the years following its untimely and unceremonious demise, and whose creator and cast members remained equally passionate about resurrecting, even as their respective careers took them in different directions. Talk of a movie hung around for years, until finally the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter gave the fans and creator Rob Thomas alike the chance to prove that the demand was there for more Veronica Mars. Warner Bros. would distribute the film, but the funding would be provided by the fans themselves, whose contributions would nearly triple the campaign's minimum goal to raise $2 million. Now, nearly a year since the successful closing of the Kickstarter campaign, and seven years since the original series went off-air, we've finally gotten our Veronica Mars movie. So is it any good?

I really wasn't sure what to expect from a Veronica Mars movie, because I honestly didn't know what more there was to tell of that story. Although the show was canceled, and many threads were left hanging, it must be acknowledged that, unlike Arrested Development, the Veronica Mars series did not go out at the top of its game, and rather than ending too soon, I'd almost argue that it went on too long. Through its first two seasons, Veronica Mars was, without question, one of the best shows on television at the time. The third and final season, on the other hand, not only was by far the worst but actually felt, at least to me, largely unnecessary. Veronica Mars was clearly conceived as a high school story, and it just didn't quite work once it moved to college.

The film, in its own way, tries to correct some of the problems with the third season, although it comes off desperate and misguided in how it goes about it. A new murder mystery summons Veronica from New York City, where she has retired from private investigation work to instead pursue a career in law, back to her hometown of Neptune (now in LA instead of San Diego, alas), where, it just so happens, all her high school classmates are still residing. And, it also just so happens, the timing of the case coincides with her high school class's ten-year reunion.

So, they're acknowledging that the college setting for the third season did not work so well, and that the show's good years were those set in high school. Unfortunately, the solution is not so simple as sending all the characters back to Neptune High. The problem with the third season was that, with the setting having moved from public school to a considerably less racially and socially diverse university, lost was the keen and relevant commentary on class struggles that had so elevated the first two seasons above every other teen drama. Dragging Veronica back into a reunion with her high school classmates, all of them now well into adulthood, still fails to reignite the original spark, because 1) it's mostly only the self-important white kids who make it to reunion, 2) even though we don't see the people not at reunion, I think we can safely assume that they're fine with not being there (i.e. nobody is going to choose to go to reunion and then complain about feeling marginalized at reunion), and 3) the whole high school reunion subplot is actually almost completely incidental to the movie's central mystery and feels largely gratuitous.

Also gone after the high school years was a lot of sense, as far as Veronica's motivations for conducting her investigations. Part of what made the first two seasons more compelling than any run-of-the-mill procedural drama was that, besides the weekly mysteries, Veronica was obsessively working season-long cases that held deep personal importance to her. But if the writers just kept contriving deeply personal cases for her to tackle as the new goal for each season, it would quickly have become ridiculous. Two seasons may have been the sweet spot—two years where we would have followed this character through a particularly dramatic chapter in her story, before she rode off into the sunset of the rest of her life. Being a private eye, though exciting, was never realistically supposed to be the end goal, after all, for someone so exceptionally bright and socially aware.

With the movie, they try once more to concoct a very personal case for Veronica to obsess over, and, guess what, it feels contrived and ridiculous. It's also not too terribly interesting, on top of being hard to swallow. None of the characters seem actually to care very much about the high school classmate that was murdered. They seem instead to recognize and accept the case for what it truly is—merely an excuse to revisit old haunts, old friends, and old romances. More intriguing, though not fully explored nor resolved in this movie, is the subplot of the ruthlessly corrupt cops now running Neptune.

To its credit, the film doesn't completely try to regress these now-well-into-their-twenties characters back to the people they were in high school. It is at first refreshing, given their tempestuous history, how maturely Veronica and Logan handle themselves on finally reconnecting. Mostly, though, seeing the adults these people have become only further demonstrates why Veronica Mars doesn't really work past high school. As it tends to do, age has taken the edge off all these people. Toned down, if not altogether gone, are Veronica's snarkiness, Logan's mean streak, and Dick's depraved cruelty. Weevil, once the leader of a biker gang in high school, is now a settled man living cleanly, if not glamorously. His is a story I've witnessed play out in real life, and, in real life, it's heartwarming. But, in a TV series or movie, the post-made-good part of that story is not interesting to follow. Duller, then, are the adult versions of these characters. Realistically so, perhaps, but duller nonetheless.

Some have criticized the film for being little more than an exercise in fan service. They point to the crowdfunding model as the culprit, speculating that Rob Thomas felt beholden to give his Kickstarter backers exactly the pandering movie they wanted. I don't know if that's really what happened, and, obviously, it's stupid to blame the fans, without whom no Veronica Mars movie would have happened at all. I think Rob Thomas and Kristen Bell were just as much servicing themselves throughout this campaign and the entire production, too wrapped up in the prospect of a real-life reunion of cast and crew, and, like the die-hard fans, too blindly passionate to recognize that the story had already run its proper course with the first two seasons.

From beginning to end, it is basically just one callback after another to the series, particularly the first two seasons. Almost every significant cast member that could reasonably return from the series gets paraded out for their own moment, no doubt to tremendous applause from longtime viewers. My favorite of these (and my favorite moment in the entire movie) had to be the return of Leo, the deputy who was briefly a love interest for Veronica. Played by Max Greenfield, now recognized for his role as Schmidt on the sitcom New Girl, Leo was always a very charming character, who probably got short shrift on the show just because there was never room to develop him amid all the other threads running at any given time. So I was glad to see this character brought back, and in such crowd-pleasing fashion.

The Veronica Mars film is disappointing mainly because it fails to live up to the heights of the first two seasons of the series. But, again, I don't know how it could have. Yet, for all the film's shortcomings, I can't say I'm sorry that it got made. It may not add much of anything to the greatness of those first two seasons, but, as much affection as I had for the series and for the characters, I'm glad for this chance to spend a little more time with them, even if that time spent comes with a touch of melancholic nostalgia, followed by resignation that, try though this movie might, there truly is no going home. I suppose it's a bit like meeting again with an old friend you haven't seen in a long time, realizing over the course of a conversation why perhaps you grew apart, but ultimately still appreciating the reminder of what this person has meant to you. "We Used to Be Friends," as goes the suddenly more-fitting-than-ever title theme by The Dandy Warhols.

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