As a disclaimer, I backed the Veronica Mars project during its Kickstarter phase, which means I technically have a (miniscule) financial stake in the film
People are always going to remember Veronica Mars. It wasn’t the first film partially funded by Kickstarter, or even the first high profile film to come to us through crowd funding (we had already seen the release of both The Canyons and Life Itself among other projects), but it was certainly the most explosively successful one, pulling in 5.7 million dollars from its rabid fans (nearly three times the original ask of 2 million). This outpouring of grassroots support was enough of an indication for Warner Bros. to foot the rest of the bill and allow the production to move forward (they do own the rights to the show, after all), and less than a year after the Kickstarter closed, the film is releasing into theaters for a limited run today. It’s an impressive feat of fan outreach (they’ve been lobbying for a continuation of the series for years), but the real question is whether it successfully translates into a movie in its own right.
Veronica Mars reconnects us with its titular character (Kristen Bell) seven years after the show’s end. She’s relocated to New York with goofy college friend and now boyfriend Piz (Chris Lowell), and has apparently moved on entirely from her amateur detective past in fictional Neptune, CA (think Venice Beach with more class stratification). It doesn’t take long for Veronica to find herself pulled back into her old life, first by the prospect of a 10 year high school reunion then by her often violent former beau Logan (Jason Dohring) asking for her help after he is implicated in the death of his ex-girlfriend. Once Veronica returns to the old stomping grounds, the cavalcade of returning cast members rotates in and out of frame as she can’t help but try and piece together the mystery of who really killed Carrie Bishop.
As an exercise of pure plot, Veronica Mars has its highs and lows. The film has a lot to sift through in its 100 or so minutes, and often feels the pressure to compress the detective work itself in order to have time for the character moments to breathe. As a result, Veronica at times makes connections and deductions far too easily to be plausible. Still, when the rubber hits the road and the murder mystery meets its climax, Thomas once again proves his mettle as a master of ratcheting up the tension. His best work in the television series came from season finales that often revolved around extraordinarily intense chase sequences, and the film is no different. Everyone in the theater, knowing fan or neophyte, will get a kick out of the mystery’s end, which also happens to be the one sequence of the film that earns its larger frame. Too often the film feels like it was shot and blocked for the small screen, but those fears are cast off when it really matters. The question, though, is whether those people in the audience who hadn’t seen the television show even care by the time the film reaches this point.
For fans of the short-lived television show, watching Veronica Mars is like sliding into a particularly comfortable set of slippers. The film is essentially a season arc compressed into approximately two and a half episodes, and while such an approach can make the plot feel overstuffed at times, Rob Thomas’ gift for dialogue pulls him through the rough spots. The ancillary scenes, those moments where Veronica catches up with old friends Wallace (Percy Daggs III) and Mac (Tina Magorino), or her father Keith (Enrico Colantoni) or surfer bro Dick (Ryan Hansen), are the times the script gets to slow down and enjoy the characters for who they are and who they’ve always been. These are the times the fan service kicks into overdrive, throwing out rapid fire in-jokes and references that definitely make those in the know howl with laughter, but aren’t so obscure that the layman can’t find a chuckle here and there from the wit and wordplay that exists beyond pure reference. Still, it is incredibly obvious that Thomas had one goal for this project: please the fans that opened their wallets to make this film a reality.
Veronica Mars isn’t the first fan service film, and it certainly won’t be the last. Other projects, like Joss Whedon’s Serenity were at least nominally concerned with creating a film that had the opportunity to appeal to a wider audience. Whedon’s production was a pure studio film, which makes for a different ecosystem than we have here, but he still made sure to keep the in-joking to a minimum and focus instead on the more archetypal traits of his characters that would more capably serve two masters. Thomas and co-writer Diane Ruggiero, or so it seems from how this films plays out, honestly don’t seem particularly concerned with anyone who hasn’t watched all 64 episodes of the original run, probably multiple times (The 90 second opening sequence that serves as a “Previously on…” writ large is not going to do much to corral the ingénues). I happen to be one of those people, and I couldn’t help but enjoy myself mightily during approximately 98% of the movie (there is one scene near the end that features some real howlers from the script that caught me off guard a bit in their cheesiness).
It’s sublimely entertaining for fans of the film, but only for fans of the film. The lack of context mixed with the at-times rushed plotting and the television-y production style should make this nearly unassailably difficult for non-fans to interact with positively. It’s an interesting experiment of this new crowd-funding world in which we find ourselves, but it doesn’t strike the correct balance, and is too insular for the public at large. This isn’t going to create any new fans, and that feels like a massive missed opportunity.