Thursday, March 20, 2014

Movie Review: "Veronica Mars" by David Pretty

Y'know, it's great to have a Veronica Mars movie in theaters and all, but it's also a sad comment about the state of modern cinema. In order for audiences to get a genuinely-interesting murder mystery starring a smart, strong and resourceful female protagonist who isn't a professional victim, it has to be based on a prematurely-cancelled, nearly ten-year-old television show which was crowd-funded into existence by fans. 

My point is: why aren't there more original movies like this? Studios do know that half of the population is female, right? Fucking idiots.

Sorry, I digress. For the uninitiated, Veronica Mars is a solid "whodunnit" featuring a slew of great performances. For unabashed fans like myself, the movie is nothing short of a dream come true.   

Like every other decent T.V. show that had its existence tragically cut short ("Paging Joss Whedon...paging Joss Whedon..."), show runner Rob Thomas had a few plot threads a-danglin' when Veronica Mars was unceremoniously booted off the prime time stage. When we last left our super-sleuth she'd just parted ways with her edgy, on-again / off-again / on-again /off-again boyfriend Logan (Jason Dohring) and rebounded with sweet-but-whitebread music nerd Stosh “Piz” Piznarski (Chris Lowell).

Fast forward to present day and Veronica and Piz are now livin' in sin together in New Yawk City. Days before Veronica (Kristen Bell) is offered a high-profile job at a prestigious law firm, she finds out that Logan is back in the hot-seat, accused of murdering his current girlfriend Carrie (Andrea Estella), a former classmate who morphed into troubled pop music diva Bonnie DeVille. Even though she vowed to leave her checkered  investigative past behind her, Veronica jets back to her home town of Neptune, California in order to help Logan weed out all the legal vultures circling around him.

We're soon reminded of Neptune's Twin Peaks-like seedy side. After Veronica's doting pops Keith (Enrico Colantoni) got pulled through the mud during a contentious municipal election, the town now finds itself under the questionable auspices of Sheriff Dan Lamb, played with douchebaggy perfection by Jerry O'Connell. With corruption rampant and racially-motivated stop-and-frisks a regular occurrence, Veronica feels compelled to slip back into her old habits. 

The plot thickens when "pals" Wallace (Percy Daggs III) and Mac (Tina Majorino) drag Veronica to their conveniently-timed ten year High School reunion. Not only does this give our heroine some key insight into the suspects, screenwriters Rob Thomas and Diane Ruggiero take this opportunity to re-acquaint fans with a slew of minor characters. Pretty soon Veronica finds herself uncomfortably close to the truth, resulting in ample fisticuffs, stray gunfire, attempted murder and plenty of sharply-scripted sarcasm.

If it sounds like I just described the most elaborate in-joke in cinema history you'd be forgiven. I must confess: I probably wouldn't have enjoyed the film quite so much if I wasn't already a fan of the T.V. show. But don't let that deter you since the script for Veronica Mars is actually pretty freakin' good. Like all good murder mysteries red herrings abound, obvious suspects are eliminated, clues keep piling up and the viewer is kept guessing right up until the end. Even when the list of potential killers is narrowed down to only four, the particulars still came as a pleasant surprise to me.

Even though Rob Thomas was likely tempted to turn the film into an endless conveyor belt of high-profile cameos, he shows restraint and keeps the story moving along at a reasonable clip. Yes, a lot of familiar faces do crop up, but it's in service of the plot. For example, when a sleazy video of Bonnie DeVille appears online, a similarly-victimized real-life celebrity helps Veronica trace it back to resident dirtbag Vinny Van Lowe (Ken Marino) which, in turn, leads to a major plot development. Even if it isn't integral to the plot, sharp-eyed viewers will also have fun spotting Bell's real-life partner Dax Sheppard during the High School reunion.

Admittedly there are a couple of scenes which seem to exist just to appease the Kickstarter crowd. Even though the re-union between Veronica and casual fling Leo D’Amato (Max Greenfield) isn't what I'd describe as "pivotal", some character had to give us this info so why not Leo? For fans, this scene is a major highlight. Not only do the two actors play off of one another brilliantly, Greenfield even makes reference to the failed season four pitch which would have seen Veronica emerging fresh out of Quantico.  

Sometimes the script does sag under the crushing weight of collective fan expectations. The entire conspiracy sub-plot involving Weevil, Keith, Deputy Sacks (Brandon Hillock) and the police was clearly seeded here in order to set up a potential sequel. I completely understand why this was done, it just doesn't help the story currently being told here. Also, in a desperate bid to create complications, believability gets stretched to the limit at times.  The whole radio station tip off thing is a particularly goofy example of this.       

On a more positive note, the actors really run with the script's emotional heft and snappy dialogue. Kristen Bell deserved a freakin' Emmy for her work on the television show and she certainly brings her "A"-game here. No one delivers a Rob Thomas put-down like Bell who, more then ever, seems to be a constant target  for potential players, rank idiots and perverts.

Even when she's not armed with dialogue, Bell is still a formidable force. Every time she folds her arms, adopts that deadpan stare and takes aim at an unsuspecting mouth-breather, you'd be wise to duck n' cover. Nothing says "Please die in a fire" quite like a Veronica Mars stare-down. She's equally limber when tasked to deliver a complicated bluff or a pleased-as-punch accusation. Honestly I could watch this woman read C-Span transcripts for two hours and be perfectly entertained.

Jason Dohring is measured and low-key as Logan Echolls. Mercifully Thomas doesn't regress his main characters just because they've moved to the big screen. As such, our favorite tall, brooding, not-so-spoiled rich kid actually exhibits a modicum of, dare I say it, maturity? His first appearance on screen is a bit of a system shock and his downright Zen-like demeanor could easily be mistaken for resignation.

One thing that will never change is Logan's unflagging defense of Veronica. Clearly Dohring knows this role inside and out by now so he isn't exactly reinventing the wheel, but he does do a fine job bringing out the character's new subtleties. Oh, and what kind of Veronica Mars movie would it be if Logan Echolls didn't get involve in some sort of epic, knuckle-chucking dust-up. Needless to say, Dohring acquits himself quite nicely during this scene and as well as every other for that matter.  

And how great is it to see the dynamic duo of Percy Daggs III and Trina Majorino in action once again as Wallace and Mac? Both of them slip back into their respective roles with ease, delivering Thomas's high-octane dialogue with typical aplomb. Every time either of these two grace the screen they really drive home my belief that every good protagonist needs a practical and authentic support system.

The minor players certainly don't turn in minor performances. Of particular note is Krysten Ritter as Gia Goodman. Between her early stint on the television show and her role as Jane on Breaking Bad, Kristen has really perfected the art of what I can only describe as "breezy fraudulence". Not only was she blessed with stunningly-retro good looks, Ritter also has no problem switching gears between irritation, distraction and vapididty even during the same scene.

As the perennially-shirtless surfer-bro Dick Casablancas, Ryan Hansen had some pretty funny moments on the original T.V. show. Even though he's still a total dee-bag here, Hansen's natural charisma shines through and he easily walks off with pretty much every scene he's in. Despite the fact that Dick is a prime suspect this case, Hanson's limitless confidence keeps us guessing. Is he really that cocksure or is it all just an elaborate bluff?

It's also great to see Francis Capra back as ex-badass biker turned model(ish) citizen Eli "Weevil" Navarro. Capra sells this development so well that an unexpected close call actually elicited a collective gasp of surprise from the audience. Chris Lowell is also great as Veronica's eager-to-please nominal boyfriend Piz. He's earnest, inhumanly-patient and can wear a permanent "kick-me" sign without looking like a complete and total milksop. Finally Enrico Colantoni continues to provide the perfect parental half in what has to be one of the most positive, genuine and heart-warming on-screen father / daughter relationships.

The average film-goer can watch and enjoy Veronica Mars on a purely superficial level but for fans this one is a particularly tasty treat. The movie serves up plenty of great geek-out moments, a satisfying finale and, most importantly, offers up a modicum of hope that we'll see Veronica come back time and time again like sassier, blonder James Bond.

Please note: by reading this you are now contractually-obligated to take in a screening of Veronica Mars or be saddled with the permanent descriptor of 'big meanie face'. Legal disclaimer: of course I'm saying this for purely selfish reasons. I wants me some mo' Marz.

      Tilt: up.

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