Veronica Mars, the movie, is not really a movie. It nonetheless has plenty of things that many actual movies selfishly neglect: it’s got a beginning, middle, and end; it showcases a wonderfully endearing cast of characters who often speak in snappy dialogue; it even has some thematic resonance about the way our past can take control of our present. But it also includes an unresolved B-story, supporting characters presented with little context, and what amounts to a “previously on” montage. That is to say, this is a chapter in a franchise: a feature film that continues a television series, as directly as it can following a nine-year gap, and leads — for now — into a series of canon novels written by creator (and film director/cowriter) Rob Thomas. Moreover, this version of Veronica Mars seems to tee up more movies. Or at least, it damn well better.
The opening clip show will clue in the uninitiated that Veronica (Kristen Bell) is the daughter of private detective Keith Mars (Enrico Colantoni) and something of an amateur sleuth herself, eventually left her class-divided hometown of Neptune, California, to attend Stanford University and then law school (the three-season TV series, a little uneven but mostly terrific, left off just before Veronica’s departure, revealed via narration and an expository job interview in the film). But the combination of TV show footage, efficient exposition, and background details throughout the film will probably not explain to non-fans why they’re actually watching this movie. That’s up to their girlfriends and boyfriends.
The film picks up with Veronica in New York, nine years clean of sleuthing and righteous troublemaking. But just after her law-firm interview, she gets a call from her ex-boyfriend Logan (Jason Dohring): He’s been arrested for murder. Again. Logan has never, to Veronica’s knowledge, murdered anyone, but he has a knack for turning up in shady places at shadier times; depending on how you count it, this is at least the third or fourth murder case of Logan’s life. In a Grosse Pointe Blank-worthy coincidence, Logan’s trouble overlaps with the Neptune High School ten-year reunion. Veronica has been avoiding it, though her friends Wallace (Percy Daggs III) and Mac (Tina Majorino) goad her into attending.
Veronica’s disgust with Neptune’s super-upper class was a major theme on the TV series and takes center stage for the film as she boomerangs back to the California noir of her youth; hometown anxiety festers into a heightened world of corrupt cops, seedy rich kids, and roving biker gangs. Despite the low budget of the TV series (it was one of the cheapest on network TV in its day), Thomas and his crew made the fictional Neptune a rich and vivid place, background work that the movie seizes on but doesn’t expand. Even a low-budget movie like this one — famously funded, at least in part, by the online donation organization Kickstarter — must far exceed what would have been spent on the small screen running-time equivalent (about two episodes and change). But while the ambience gets a slicker look for the bigger screen, the movie doesn’t go as full-tilt noir as it might have, apart from some clever shots and evocatively placed shadows.
As a series finale or possible de facto pilot, though, Veronica Mars more than delivers; it’s fast-moving, well-plotted (if not exactly shocking), and very funny. The high-school reunion vibe works: Just about every worthwhile character from the series returns in some capacity, and though this means many of their roles are small, they’re all expertly deployed, surpassing the standard set by the X-Files movies, which reduced some of its most beloved bit players to walk-ons. Colantoni, Majorino, and Daggs, along with Neptune alums like Ryan Hansen, Chris Lowell, Ken Marino, and Max Greenfield make the most of their moments in the spotlight, however brief.
If the movie ever upsets its ensemble balance, it’s in favor of Dohring’s Logan, whose stormy past with Veronica has been misinterpreted as epic by some of the show’s writers and fans. His initial romance with Veronica, back in the show’s first season when the character was more of a charismatic miscreant, was a slow-building surprise. Back then, it also would have been unthinkable for Logan to not be a credible suspect in the case where he’s charged with murder. But the movie is too beholden to faux-epic romance to fully exploit the idea that Logan could be guilty — guilty of something, anything worse than a mild temper, even if not quite murder. Dohring and Bell have plenty of chemistry, being mutually at home with snotty comebacks. But Logan doesn’t need to be Veronica’s equal in screen time; he’s not her equal in emotional depth or likability, and Bell, shrugworthy movie career nonwithstanding, is more at home on movie screens than her costar.
Still, the absolute pleasure of reviving Veronica Mars after a nearly decade-long absence radiates from everyone in the movie, and from Thomas and co-writer Diane Ruggiero as they relish new interrogations, new plot twists, new banter. Newbies may not catch those same rays of joy, but a couple of non-converts I talked to seemed to enjoy it. Veronica Mars may not be a movie in the traditional sense, but as a cult pop-culture event (emphasis on the “cult”), it’s hard to beat.