You don’t have to be a dedicated disciple of the defunct television program Veronica Mars – a self-proclaimed Marshmallow, if you will – to appreciate and enjoy the standalone film adaptation. But those already tuned to Veronica’s snarky frequencies admittedly will have a much better time than the casual (or non) fans sampling the movie out of curiosity.
When Mars creator Rob Thomas recently took to the stage at the Paramount Theater at South By Southwest to introduce his feature ahead of its world premiere, he praised the film’s Kickstarter fans, who famously provided enough seed money to get the project off the ground. He lauded the show’s original cast members, who all agreed to return and further explore characters they hadn’t touched since Veronica Mars was cancelled in 2007. And he commended the studio, Warner Bros., for taking a chance on what Thomas deemed “an experiment.”
He’s right. It is, on so many levels. And creatively, I’m here to tell you that the Veronica Mars experiment succeeds, though now the industry will be paying very close attention to determine whether – financially – this new model of lower-budgeted passion projects can carve out a significant niche in today’s competitive marketplace.
That’s up to the fans, who will flock to theaters to catch up with Neptune, California’s own Nancy Drew – Veronica Mars (played once again by the steely, spunky Kristen Bell). “But I haven’t seen any episodes of the show?” you tell me. I was in that boat with you. Relatively. After attempting to crash course the series prior to the movie’s release, I stalled near the end of the first (of three) seasons. I was familiar enough with the core characters to head confidently into the theater. And I appreciated the fact that Thomas crafted a standalone movie that doesn’t alienate newcomers, providing a montage of clips at the film’s onset to share Veronica’s history, then diving into a substantial mystery that will engage audience members just looking for a sarcastically tense and colorful little thriller.
Though Veronica, when we catch up with her, has left her detecting days behind. She’s up for an entry-level gig at a high-powered law firm in Manhattan – far away from the madness that swirled around her in the cozy but off-kilter California beach town of Neptune. Trouble doesn’t avoid Mars for long, however. News begins to break that former flame Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring) is the lead suspect in the unsolved murder of his pop-star girlfriend. Reluctantly, Veronica heads home to help Logan secure proper legal counseling. Once on the ground in Neptune, though, her investigative instincts kick in, and we’re off to the races.
“Look at us, falling right back into our old rhythms,” Dohring says in an early scene with Bell, and it’s impossible not to take that as a direct nod to Thomas and his cast, who show little rust when resurrecting the characters they played on television for multiple seasons. Bell, in particular, is overwhelmingly charming and adorable, giving Veronica a sharp, impenetrable edge that makes her credible as a crime-fighting college graduate, yet plucky and sassy enough to embrace as a pop-culture personality. Mars strikes me as a show created to fill a void left by Buffy the Vampire Slayer (which ended the year before Mars launched), and Bell often strives for the balance of fragile-yet-heroic that Sarah Michelle Gellar perfected. So when someone in the Mars movie jokes that the troubled town of Neptune “really does live on a Hellmouth,” I had to laugh at the obvious reference.
Veronica Mars, however, doesn’t live by endless in-jokes aimed only at diehards. References to a scandalous sex tape, and the depth of the Veronica-Logan relationship, might fly over the heads of the uninitiated. But Thomas ensures that his movie packs a full-season mystery into one tightly plotted, decently paced and well-acted thriller. Celebrity cameos, Bell’s sunny personality, and a scene-stealing performance by the irrepressible Ryan Hansen (as party boy Dick Casablancas) will entertain non-Mars devotees, while the faithful will simply devour the additional two hours they are being given in the sordid underbelly of Neptune’s seedy, spoiled community.
Veronica Mars, simply by existing, feels like it needs to check several boxes. As the product of a Kickstarter campaign, it has to prove to fans that it’s worth their investment. As the follow-up to a defunct TV series, it has to prove that it deserved a second chance – that there were (and continue to be) more stories left to tell in this universe. And as a standalone movie, it has to entertain, and possibly open the door to new fans wanting to go back and see what they missed in the show’s three seasons. Remarkably, I think Mars succeeds on all three levels. It’s a triumph for the show’s rabid fan base, a fun excursion for relative newcomers, and tangible proof that, sometimes, deceased shows deserve new life.