SXSW Film Review: 'Veronica Mars'

Cult TV show transitions to film with all its charms intact

Marshmallow nation, you may now exhale: Rob Thomas did ya right.

To the uninitiated, the Veronica Mars movie might seem like small potatoes: a modestly budgeted spinoff of a short-lived TV show about a teenage private eye that dazzled its tiny viewership with its wittiness, its withering cut-downs of wealth and the cult of celebrity, and its feisty, feminist hero. But the stakes are much higher for fans of the original series (self-described "marshmallows") – and for its creator, Rob Thomas. After all, those fans famously opened their own wallets to the tune of $5 million and change, donated via Kickstarter, and basically greenlit the movie (Warner Bros., taking the hint, ponied up the rest of the budget). Thomas can take a hint, too, and has given the people what they want: not a reinvention of the wheel, but another spirited spin of it.

A two-minute intro (leaked early to the Internet) zips new viewers through the backstory: The misfit daughter of a defrocked-sheriff-turned-private-eye, Veronica (the essential Kristen Bell) spent the better part of her adolescence solving crimes, which frequently involved bending the law (but what’s a little B&E if you nab the bad guy?), cat-and-mousing with the corrupt police department that ran her unfailingly moral dad out of office, and much Tasering of assholes. (There are a lot of assholes in Neptune, Calif., a beachside town violently cleaved into haves and have nots.) In her opening narration (a carryover from the series), Veronica explains how she got out of small-minded Neptune at age 19 and never looked back – not to the city, the people, or the P.I. life. The film picks up 10 years later, with Veronica on the East Coast, about to embark on a career as a corporate attorney. Oh, but there’s a powerful beacon calling her back home, and his name is Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring). Logan is the bad-boy ex she cut off cold turkey – there’s a reason an addiction metaphor runs throughout the movie – and at film’s beginning, Logan is charged with the murder of his pop star girlfriend. Convinced of Logan’s innocence, Veronica again gets the P.I. itch – so long denied – and soon enough, she’s back on the case, right where we want her.

She’s also pulled back into Neptune’s orbit, which allows Thomas and co-writer Diane Ruggiero to revive favorite characters from the show, while also introducing a few choice cameos I won’t spoil here. It’s a kick seeing old characters anew (no surprise that it’s the outcasts and nerds that have aged best, though Ryan Hansen’s surfer-braaa Dick is still delightfully doing right by his name), and the movie comfortably settles into a kind of super-episode, pinging long-dormant pleasure centers with both procedural and emotional beats that reward devoted fans.

Is it enough to attract new viewers? The central mystery – and the roiling tension of Neptune’s ongoing class divide, a chief concern of the TV show only glanced at here – suffer for being squished into feature-length when their scope warrants a season-long unspooling; there are enough dangling threads to rue they won’t be followed up in next week’s episode. But for those of us – yes, us: I’m a marshmallow, too – in a longtime relationship with the show, the whosits and whatsits of the murdering take a backseat in priority to the ever-clever wordplay and deeply felt evocation of loyalty to friends, family, and lovers alike that’s always been Veronica Mars’ true north. As the theme song goes, “a long time ago, we used to be friends” – and this friend still fits like a cozy sweater.

Veronica Mars

Opens in theatres and on VOD March 14

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