Movie review: 'Veronica Mars' returns to dark, witty life
However improbable its existence may be, however unconventional its funding was, the "Veronica Mars" movie exists. And it's a blast.
Based on the low-rated, lower-budget UPN and CW TV drama about a teen girl private eye — "Trust me, I know how dumb that sounds," the adult Veronica (Kristen Bell) admits in the film's opening seconds — directed and co-written (with Diane Ruggiero) by the show's creator, Rob Thomas, the "Veronica Mars" movie was paid for largely(*) by a crowdfunded Kickstarter campaign, which created a dynamic unheard-of in mainstream moviemaking. Traditionally, audiences pay for a film after it's made (and if not enough see it, the picture loses money). In this case, the show's fans were so eager to see Veronica, Keith, Logan and the rest return to life that they shelled out money ahead of time, literally making the movie possible.
(*) Fans pledged $5.7 million of their own money to the project, a decent chunk of which was going to be redirected to paying for fulfillment of the many Kickstarter rewards (t-shirts, posters, digital downloads of the film and more). In the end, Warner Bros. agreed to pay for fulfillment so Thomas could use the whole $5.7 mil on the movie, and later added some extra cash to pay for a few reshoots and additional scenes.
And that reversal of timing also created something of a reversal of power. Not only did the amount of funding (the Kickstarter hit its minimal goal within 12 hours of being announced) determine the scope of the movie, but the fans' advance investment in it made Thomas feel an extra obligation to satisfy them.
While the Kickstarter campaign was still in full swing, Thomas told me he initially debated taking Veronica in a new direction, "or there's the 'give the people what they want' version. And I think partly because it's crowd-sourced, I'm going with the 'give the people what they want' version... 'Let's not piss people off who all donated. Let's give them the stuff that I think that they want in the movie.'"
This wasn't creativity-by-committee. Fans couldn't demand that Thomas and Ruggiero include certain plot points, or exclude certain characters. (If they could, Chris Lowell almost certainly wouldn't be back as Veronica's divisive season 3 boyfriend Piz.) Still, some of the best moments on the series — and in much of serialized fiction — comes not from giving the audience what they want, but what they need. As much as I admired and understood Thomas' desire to satisfy the people who were literally paying his salary on this one, I also thought back to how many fans were initially unhappy with the series' terrific final episode, a dark, unhappy ending that stayed uncompromisingly true to the show's film noir roots. Had Thomas been putting the fans' desires first and foremost back then, I wondered, would the series have ended with Veronica's father Keith (Enrico Colantoni) winning the election for sheriff, Veronica and her star-crossed lover Logan (Jason Dohring) reuniting with no build-up, and perhaps her dog Backup having a litter of adorable puppies? Fan service for its own sake can be a very dangerous thing.
And the "Veronica Mars" movie is fan service-y, at times brazenly so. Nearly every notable character comes back (sometimes seamlessly fitting into the story, sometimes part of an otherwise unnecessary detour), there are winks to key moments in the real and fictional life of the show (including a reference to the aborted plan to continue the series with Veronica as a rookie FBI agent), a scene where Veronica and Piz walk past a busker playing the show's theme song and various opportunities for Bell and Dohring to smolder brightly in each other's presence.
But Thomas and Ruggiero have found a way to make a movie that the fans will love without straight-up pandering to them.
If the movie interests you at all, you probably know the basics by now: Veronica hasn't worked a case since the one at the end of the series killed Keith's election hopes and got him in a lot of trouble, but when Logan gets into a jam, Veronica comes running home to help him, in a week that coincidentally includes their 10-year high school reunion.
The plot brings back most of the characters, while also reviving the show's class warfare theme (which feels even more timely now than it did in the mid-'00s), but the film doesn't just feel like a double-length episode of the series. The scope feels bigger, the look is richer, and the focus on who Veronica is and why she's so good at this job goes much deeper than the show usually did.