Review: Veronica Mars

Veronica Mars

Trailer

"We used to be friends, a long time ago..."

“We used to be friends, a long time ago…”

I was a big Veronica Mars fan. I thought, before viewing, that the premise was a gateway to childishness and smalsh, but was delighted to find a dark, moody and utterly enthralling detective mystery show, in a setting that allowed an exploration of a multitude of unlikely themes: sexual assault, unwanted pregnancy, class divide, police and political deceit, destructive relationships and feminism. Its second season remains, for me, the benchmark in how to mix the procedural and the serialised, with a clever overarching plotline mixing in with independent stories.

It’s cancellation after just three years, and without a proper ending, was a gutpunch. But, through the power of Kickstarter, a fact namedropped subtly in the production itself, Veronicas Mars has been allowed to ride again, possibly for one last conclusive adventure, or maybe as the start of something more.

Nine years on from her last adventure in the California town of Neptune, Veronica Mars (Kristin Bell) has left behind the private detective business of her father (Enrico Colantoni) in favour of New York and pursuing a career in law alongside her reliable boyfriend Piz (Chris Lowell). But when ex-flame Logan (Jason Dohring) asks Veronica to help him prove his innocence in the death of his girlfriend, Veronica is drawn back to Neptune, and a world of celebrity, conspiracy, corruption and murder.

More in-depth discussion of the film, with spoilers, from this point on. For my shorter, non-spoiler, review, click here to go to The Write Club.

Veronica Mars sets itself up very quickly, so that the fans of the TV show can settle in as fast as possible. Even as Veronica namedrops things that occurred to her in the course of her three years in Neptune – like that sex tape incident – it is remarkably clear how much has changed. Veronica might still have the biting wit and the incredible confidence, but she’s also a long way from where she was: she has the career in law ahead of her and a stable, long-term relationship with the easy going and imminently likable Piz (no matter what the shippers think).

But Thomas does a great job at undermining this apparent tranquillity, and that’s before Veronica is even called back to Neptune. She and Piz seem great, but she’s a somewhat absent girlfriend, who has not even met his parents in nine years. She mocks his work colleagues, and generally seems a bit too blasé about her life. And then Logan Echels gets on the phone.

From there, Veronica Mars becomes the Veronica/Logan show. This may have been what a lot of the fans wanted, but the overwhelming dominance of those two ends up shafting a lot of characters, and all for a reason I’m not super happy with myself. The “On again, off again” nature of the Veronica and Logan, while entertaining for a time, had become very worn by the conclusion of the TV show, at least in my view. Enough time has passed that the return to this state of affairs is not as tired as it might be, but there were moments in the course of Veronica Mars when I could only roll my eyes at the way Veronica and Logan were looking at each other. A failure to launch is what it was, for the Veronica character.

That’s not even a bad thing inherently. Veronica isn’t perfect, and never has been. Admitting an addiction to drama and the kind of person Logan is, to the horrific detriment of poor Piz, actually does a great job of rounding Veronica out. I just feel like this is old ground, already well trod. In that sense, there is a certain lack of ambition in Veronica Mars.

On again, off again, will they, won't they...

On again, off again, will they, won’t they…

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Veronica Mars is, I expect, exactly what its financial backers wanted it to be: an episode of the TV show. Because that is what it is, just elongated out to nearly two hours. Every noteworthy character from the TV show that’s still breathing makes a return for the big screen edition, Logan is in legal trouble and needs Veronica’s help, Veronica is faced with the choice of the stable loving guy or the dangerous attractive bad boy, the police are corrupt (and there’s even a Sheriff Lamb in charge), hacking needs to be done, rich and poor clash, the high school bitch has it out with our heroine and a celebrity drops in for a little while. Thomas, having managed to inject life once again into the beloved franchise, simply keeps going with what wasn’t broken.

That is sure to make fans of the show very, very happy (and so I would say for myself) but I’m not sure that it really does the best work at making Veronica Mars stand on its own merits. The murder plot can feel a bit stretched out at times, very much like a 44 minute idea that Thomas is trying to make good for the big screen. With plenty of Veronica/Logan based drama to supplement, our private eye launches herself at the murder case. It’s a bit more serious than your standard mystery of the week that characterised the TV show, but still follows much or the same format: following the obvious lead, uncovering an unexpected conspiracy involving an unlikely character, laughing at the bumbling police efforts and a neat resolution. There is an added edge to proceedings of course – not least the murderous quality of the new Neptune police force – but the general feel of things is not all that different to what came before.

It’s still a fairly interesting murder mystery though. With the skill of the TV show in peppering subtle hints and drawing a satisfying conclusion from them, the film manages to craft a crime drama to hold the interest, just like Thomas did week in, week out nearly a decade ago. Logan is accused of murdering his celebrity socialite girlfriend, a Lindsey Lohan type it would seem, and Veronica comes to the rescue. The obvious is dealt with quickly, through the creepy stalker type that is an inevitable addition to this kind of story, but at least it’s done in a fun way, with Logan forced to go on a date with her, the kind of darkly humorous situation that is a hallmark of this franchise. From there it’s a heady mixture of surveillance, breaking, entering and awesome spy work, interrupted frequently by Logan staring longingly at Veronica and the occasional talking head from the TV show.

Of those characters, the supporting case, there is delight and some disappointment. Tina Majorino’s Mac, who had one of the shows great arcs, is sidelined to a few snarky comments and the standard hacking skills and Wallace, much as he suffered in the latter end of the TV show, suffers even more. But Keith Mars is back with a vengeance, still sticking it to an increasingly extremist man through his own investigations, and still regretting the amount of hands off parenting he does with Veronica. And Vinnie Van Lowe is still sleazing it up.

Beyond them, the amount of brief cameos is staggering and unnecessary. Just about every noteworthy character from the TV show that was still breathing pops back up, from Dick Casablancas to Celeste Kane. Newcomers to the franchise are bound to feel a little lost, especially when it comes to the multitude of cameos from characters not especially important to the story. As nice as it is to see that Dick Casablancas is still an “09er” asshat, he isn’t very important to the story being told. The high school bitch, the brief Sherriff department boyfriend, the weird Mayor’s daughter, the former principal, they all pop back up. I wouldn’t say most of them are really needed, and seem like a sop to the fans more than anything. The worst, perhaps, is poor Weevil. Veronica meets him a changed man, with a job, a wife and a baby daughter. Then for seemingly no other reason than to get the status quo back on track, he gets sucked back into his old life, with very little impact on the main plot. Weevil remains a representation of everything wrong in how Neptune treats those outside of the “09er” circle, marked for disappointment and injustice from the second he reappears in Veronica Mars, but really doesn’t serve much point to the story beyond that.  The standard issue of class divide (or war if we want to be overblown) returns then, as Neptune exhibits an increased  state of “One rule for some, another for everyone else”.  The rich still get away with everything, and the lower classes still have to play with the deck stacked against them, even in patently unfair situations. The example of Weevil in Veronica Mars is a bit clumsy, but serves to illustrate the point. Neptune is a town that is utterly broken, its authorities rotten to their core and propped up by an array of money and power.

The reunion scene, wherein a mass brawl breaks out and Veronica finally gets to punch that stuck up cow in the face, is nothing but pure fan service, but at least it eventually gets the plot moving in the right direction. Another dark and twisted conspiracy is slowly uncovered among the rich and powerful in “09er” land, one that has its tendrils, suitably enough, during the cast’s high school years. The false leads mount up, in true Veronica Mars fashion.

Along with all of this, Mars Investigations takes a long hard look at celebrity culture’s interactions with the age of mass media, a recurring theme, written and visual, being the preponderance of recording devices in the modern age, and everything that goes with it. Veronica Mars has always been about surveillance and the secrets we keep – the very first episode of the TV show has the viral spread of a video depicting a dead rich girls corpse as a plot point – and eases easily enough into an age where secrets are increasingly kept secret only for a very short time. I watched this film just after the celebrity nude photo scandal (a scandal insofar that innocent people were criminally targeted), and it’s fair to say that its message continues to resonate. This eventually leads to James Franco’s remarkable cameo, a strangely effective comic moment at a time when the film was embarking on its most serious section.

The intervening moments are supposed to belong to the morass of Veronica’s self-destructive need for drama, which draws her back into the arms of Logan conveniently just after the final destruction of her relationship with Piz. Veronica comes off badly in these moments in my eyes, but it is a decision and a situation based off danger and emotion, with her father nearly murdered by a corrupt police force and Logan facing a possible death sentence. Veronica Mars raises the stakes very effectively with the menace of Jerry O’Connell new sheriff, one half incompetent and one half deadly, committed to maintaining the police state he has somehow managed to create in Neptune.

Unfortunately, much of Veronica Mars' supporting cast has little to do here.

Unfortunately, much of Veronica Mars‘ supporting cast has little to do here.

The final confrontation is classic Veronica Mars, with the unravelling of a dark conspiracy that the “09er” youth have been covering up for decades (how dumb was Thomas’ decision to absolve Dick Casablancas of blame though?). I’ll say this for the murder mystery: I didn’t see the ending coming until it was almost upon me, and for something like that Veronica Mars is to be commended. There is light at the end of the tunnel, as Veronica Mars also brings in one of its previously standard themes, that maybe adds to the unreality: Just desserts. If you have something coming to you in Veronica Mars, you’re going to receive it eventually. No matter how rich or powerful, be sure your sin will find you out. Sherriff Lamb is shown up as corrupt. The charges against Weevil are dropped. Murderers are punished, the associates suffer. Hell, you cross Veronica Mars, and you get a punch in the face. Veronica Mars likes to tell a story where justice is served, even in such a loathsome hive of scum and villainy as Neptune.

All that’s left is the wrap-up which, again, is almost exclusively the Veronica/Logan show. Some of the stuff in their final dialogue is embarrassingly dumb, and very much a fan service exercise, but I suppose that I can forgive it, seeing the quality of most of what came before.

What is needed afterwards was a sense of closure, that thing that was so lacking from the unplanned ending of the TV show. So, there is lots of that, a sense of characters and arcs being left in satisfying places. Keith Mars is on his way back to the sheriff’s department, Mac escapes from data entry drudgery. Even in a negative sense, Weevil gets dragged back into the biker gang world.

And then there is Veronica, left sitting behind her father’s desk, taking on the mantle that so many of the shows followers expected and wanted. That’s fine, even suitable, and matches the overall theme of Veronica being unable, even a decade on, to stay away from all of the drama in Neptune and the way that she can manipulate it. Thomas manages to create effective closure in our relationship with Veronica, while also leaving open the tantalising possibility of further adventures.

Who knows where Veronica Mars goes from here? Part of me feels that this should, perhaps, be Veronica’s final bow, before repetitiveness and atrophy bring the franchise down to a level that would result in a bad taste. You don’t want Veronica trapped in the same role forever, and the chance of the great game changer – the “Veronica in the FBI” idea – is now long gone (with a nod in its direction appearing in this film).  Maybe the decent way, in narrative terms, that this film ends should be our last onscreen look at Mars Investigations.

The few films this year featuring women in the lead role have largely failed to impress me, so it’s nice to see one that actually does. Veronica has always been a great example of a woman in entertainment: confident, assertive, intelligent, sexually unashamed, emotionally flawed and very modern in everything about her. All of that has continued on to the big screen. There is something so imminently likeable about Veronica Mars, even with the snark and the occasional arrogance.

Maybe it is just a simple matter of having a fleshed out character, who stumbles sometimes, who makes bad choices but who generally is always on the right path. There’s something very real about this character, even if the situations she finds herself in are frequently unreal. Rob Thomas’ creation and Bell’s acting have crafted Veronica Mars into the state she is in today, something that should be close to an icon for how to treat women in the fictional worlds of the entertainment industry.

The film’s unique financial backing makes its profit margins and chances of a sequel a little hard to judge, but if Veronica Mars has proven anything, it is that a loyal fanbase can make things happen.  Their reward for that commitment is a fine film extension of a brilliant franchise, which captures just about everything that made the TV show so good, even if it is very much a fan-centric production. Perhaps it will be Serenity-esque and become a glorious but final farewell. Or maybe this is just what Veronica Mars needed to kickstart itself.

The plot is good, the acting is great, the visuals are outstanding and the script is everything that the TV show was nearly a decade ago. Veronica Mars has some issues with the way it approaches being its own entity, and the manner in which its main pairing move through the production. Still, I feel like there is something for veterans of Neptune Noir and newcomers in this film. One I would firmly recommend.

"Remember me when...you're good to go"

“Remember me when…you’re good to go”

(All images are copyright of Warner Bros. Pictures).

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