Veronica Mars: SXSW Review

A solid cinematic turn for the Nancy Drew of the new millennium, sure to delight crowdfunding backers and other fans of the source series.

Having triumphed on Kickstarter, Rob Thomas and Kristen Bell give their tough-girl-detective TV drama second life as a standalone feature.

Canceled by the CW in 2007, the cult-fave mystery series Veronica Mars completed its third season with an (open-ended) episode titled “The Bitch Is Back.” Revived for the big screen, the gumshoe drama finds its title character, nine years later, insisting that she’s in a mellower frame of mind, no longer the angry, crime-solving kickass who thrills to danger. As if.

After a murder hits close to home, the law-school grad tosses aside her sleek job-interview threads and is soon sleuthing it up among the rich, famous, corrupt and depraved who populate her SoCal hometown. Kristen Bell is in fine form as the sharp-witted and stiletto-tongued Veronica, whose high polish on the art of sarcasm has endeared her to fans as a supremely self-possessed outsider.

VIDEO: Watch the First Two Minutes of the 'Veronica Mars' Movie

Opening a year after series creator Rob Thomas and star Bell launched their record-breaking Kickstarter campaign, raising $5.7 million, Veronica Mars the movie will pull in solid business — and repeat business — among enthusiasts, who have endured a long wait to see the residents of fictional Neptune, Calif., once again. Intense publicity over the grassroots financing has likely stirred up a certain curiosity factor among those who have never seen the show. The question remains whether a crowdfunding phenomenon involving a relatively small but avid fan base translates into box-office gold for Warners. The studio has opted for a somewhat cautious 270-screen launch and day-and-date VOD release after the movie’s premiere at SXSW.

As with the TV show, the connect-the-dots mystery solving is less interesting than the character dynamics; crimes unravel with a directness that feels aimed at younger audiences. The dark doings are leavened, and sometimes undercut, by comedy, and by angst that’s not far removed from adolescence. Thomas’ sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll neo-noir has a young-adult heart that still beats strong, even with Veronica and her friends well into their twenties. The 10-year reunion of Neptune High just happens to be impending when Veronica returns home to help solve a murder, and teen allegiances, animosities and romances loom large in the film, which features many actors reprising their small-screen roles.

STORY: 'Veronica Mars' Kickstarter Backers Start Cashing in on $5.7 Million Pledge

Thomas and co-scripter Diane Ruggiero provide a concise recap of the series’ trajectory, in the form of a stylized montage with voiceover narration, that will bring even newbies up to speed on the central character. Cut to Manhattan, where the sight of Veronica in the glass-walled conference room of a prestigious Manhattan law firm, interviewing for a job, is bound to disappoint aficionados, who are used to seeing her speak truth to power, not cozy up to it.

The crime that brings her back to beach town Neptune is the apparent murder of pop star Bonnie DeVille (Andrea Estella), a high school classmate and girlfriend of Veronica’s former flame Logan (Jason Dohring), himself a demi-celebrity because he’s the son of an actor. He’s suspect No. 1, and Veronica doesn’t hesitate to drop everything to help him, leaving behind a potential new job in New York and supportive boyfriend Piz (Chris Lowell). The Piz-Logan dilemma — good guy vs. bad boy, straightforward vs. complicated — is a fundamental element of the movie, in a way that starts out YA and turns believably grown-up messy.

As she digs into the case, Veronica reconnects with close friends Mac (Tina Majorino) and Wallace (Percy Daggs III), trades barbs with surfer jerk Dick (Ryan Hansen) and circumvents the dishonest, obstructionist sheriff (Jerry O’Connell). In the process she crosses paths with a wacko fan of the dead pop singer (Gaby Hoffmann) and uncovers a very cold 9-year-old case that involves a collective silence among her former classmates.

STORY: 'Veronica Mars' Movie Pools Pressure With Opportunity for Rob Thomas

The screenplay doesn’t avoid bouts of where-are-they-now exposition as it draws connective lines between high school and adulthood. But at its strongest, as in Veronica’s relationship with her sheriff-turned-private-investigator father (Enrico Colantoni), there’s no need to spell things out. Colantoni is understated and terrific as a man who has weathered serious challenges and reversals. The father-daughter chemistry between him and Bell is an essential component of the movie, as of the series — loaded with emotion but never lapsing into sentimentality.

As a middle-class girl in a rich kids’ town, Bell imbues Veronica with gutsiness and vulnerability. Her refusal to be trivialized by the wide assortment of creeps and phonies who make the mistake of crossing her is a particularly admirable quality.

Even so, Thomas’ direction, especially of the villainous roles, gives a lot of the action a self-conscious, not-quite-real quality. Some aspects of the movie’s intentional artifice work better than others. On the plus side are the visuals. Cinematographer Ben Kutchins’ widescreen lensing adopts the heightened lighting scheme of the show, accentuating the vintage-meets-contemporary temperament of production designer Jeff Schoen’s interiors.

PHOTOS: 17 TV Shows Brought Back From the Dead

Thomas and Ruggiero use Neptune’s proximity to Hollywood to good effect, throwing in showbiz references (awards-show gift bags play a crucial, if far-fetched, role in the mystery) along with pop culture nods. Showing up for cameos as themselves are Harvey Levin, a peeved-looking Ira Glass and, most inventively, an uncredited and very funny James Franco.

Amid the winking, a dark thread runs through the movie that has no direct bearing on the crimes Veronica is trying to solve. She makes repeated references to her absent alcoholic mother and, most jarringly, to addiction in general. It’s a thread that doesn’t feel fully integrated into the film, but suggests material that Thomas might explore if he decides to make a second Veronica Mars feature.

Opens: Friday, March 14 (Warner Bros./Warner Bros. Digital)
Production: Spondoolie
Cast: Kristen Bell, Jason Dohring, Enrico Colantoni, Chris Lowell, Percy Daggs III, Tina Majorino, Krysten Ritter, Martin Starr, Gaby Hoffmann, Andrea Estella, Jerry O’Connell, Francis Capra, Ryan Hansen, Ken Marino, Jamie Lee Curtis
Director: Rob Thomas   
Screenwriters: Rob Thomas, Diane Ruggiero
Story by Rob Thomas, based on characters created by Rob Thomas
Producers: Rob Thomas, Dan Etheridge, Danielle Stokdyk
Executive producers: Joel Silver, Kristen Bell, Jenny Hinkey, Andrew Mellett, Daniel Ornstein
Director of photography: Ben Kutchins
Production designer: Jeff Schoen
Music: Josh Kramon
Costume designer: Genevieve Tyrrell
Editor: Daniel Gabbe
PG-13; 108 min.