Not so much a feature film as an extended network-ready TV special (a few cuss words notwithstanding), Rob Thomas’ Veronica Mars, based on his defunct 2004 TV series, can’t seem to lift itself from its own low budget, low-concept doldrums, despite some occasionally good character work, fits of humor, and a lot of flip, snappy dialogue. I should perhaps admit that I did not watch the show on which this film is based, and I was, by extension, not one of the 91,000+ financial contributors to the film’s now-famous Kickstarter campaign. The television series evidently had a passionate enough cult following that Veronica Mars was funded largely by the fans themselves.
And as fan service, Veronica Mars seems to be specifically geared. There are over a dozen characters in this film, all of whom seem to serve some sort of important dramatic function in Veronica’s life, but this movie doesn’t do much by way of actual introduction. I can tell there are a lot of in-jokes, but I didn’t get any of them. It might be significant to long-time fans that Veronica (Kristen Bell) begins having a flirtatious relationship with a dull-as-toast high school sweetheart of sorts (Jason Dohring), but it means nothing to me, since Logan Echolls (yes, that is his name) is such a boring and underdeveloped character (at least in this film). But then, the film wasn’t made for me. It was made for the aforementioned 91,000. And I suppose they got what they paid for: a movie version of their favorite TV show.
What I got, however, was a largely shoddy feature film that still feels beholden to the small screen. Veronica Mars is stirringly un-cinematic. The lightweight, flat filming, dull photography, and largely bad lighting don’t just belie a low budget (indeed, I’m fine with low-budget films), but reveals a perhaps-too-strong affection for the television aesthetic. Even the pacing feels TV-ready, complete with several dramatic moments that feel like orchestrated station breaks.
Even the story doesn’t feel like a be-all of any TV series, opting instead to get up to what feels like pretty usual shenanigans. Veronica is a one-time teen sleuth who once lived with her doting PI dad (Enrico Colantoni) and harbors a still-active set of spying and lock-picking skills. Veronica hails from the ultra-corrupt fictional California town of Neptune, but she is now trying to put her past behind her by getting a job in New York with her fiancee Stosh “Pizz” Piznarski (Chris Lowell). Yes, the guy’s name is Pizz, and – perhaps because part of me is still 7 years old – I snickered every time someone said it. Veronica is called back home when one of her old high school classmates is murdered, and her old flame (Dohring) requires her investigating. The investigation that follows involves a peer pop star, a celebrity wannabe (Gaby Hoffmann), a biker gang, a high school reunion, a sex tape, bugged computers, a slimy paparazzo (Ken Marino), corrupt cops (represented by Jerry O’Connell), and – oddest of them all – a cameo from James Franco playing himself. Also, Ira Glass makes an appearance.
There is no sense of pacing or importance in these proceedings. We do see that Veronica is a bit of an addict when it comes to cracking cases, but there doesn’t seem to be much at stake. She seems perfectly at ease being a detective in her home town, working with her father, and doing what she does best. But this doesn’t feel like the case of her life, or even a particularly important one. I suppose, though, that is the M.O. of any TV show: At the end of the episode, things have to be back to normal.
The film’s one major saving grace is its ear for dialogue. Its quick wit, flip sarcasm, and characters’ wry self-awareness keep the tone light and even jaunty at times. There is a definite comedic energy hanging in the air, and Bell delivers her snappy one-liners with a good deal of comfort and sparkle. She seems totally at ease with this character, especially in the scenes she has with Colantoni; I kind of wish there had been more interaction between father and daughter. It’s the dialogue that keeps Veronica Mars on this side of watchable.
But overall, Veronica Mars feels like a pilot, all setup without an intriguing enough mystery or proper emotional payoff. For being a proud return of a beloved cult TV show, Veronica Mars is disappointingly inert. If you’re a fan of the show, well, you probably already paid for this thing. For those of you who, like me, are not familiar with Veronica Mars, you probably won’t be won over by the film.