The diehard fans instrumental in the Kickstarter campaign that provided funding for a feature follow-up to the UPN-CW series that ran from 2004 to 2007 about a teen detective in iniquitous Neptune, California, will probably be the main audience for “Veronica Mars,” a workmanlike but hardly scintillating mystery that expends more time and energy reintroducing characters from the show and trying to recapture its original flavor than constructing a compelling narrative. The most accurate—and distressing—description of the movie is that, apart from being shot in widescreen format, it actually feels like an extended episode of the show. Those not already invested in the property, in either sense of the word, are likely to greet it with a shrug.
After a brief prologue meant to familiarize newcomers with the show’s premise and three years of abbreviated plot, delivered as usual by Veronica (Kristen Bell) in voiceover designed to recall the first-person narration of hardboiled detective pulp (though not to the extent of “Brick”), we’re reintroduced to the heroine ten years after her high school graduation. She’s a freshly-minted lawyer living in New York City with reliable, supportive boyfriend and ex-classmate Piz Piznarski (Chris Lowell) and applying for a job at a tony Manhattan firm headed by Jamie Lee Curtis, just the first of people who might have been identified on the tube as a “special guest stars.”
But Veronica’s plans are suddenly thrown into disarray when she sees a news report about the death of Carrie Bishop, another ex-classmate, who’d gone on to pop singer stardom under the name of Bonnie DeVille (Andrea Estella). The person charged with killing her is none other than Veronica’s ex-boyfriend (and onetime Neptune resident bad-boy) Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), who’d become Bonnie’s significant other—famous for violent outbursts that grabbed tabloid headlines. He was found unconscious beside the bathtub in which the body was found. A call from him requesting her help draws Veronica back to the West Coast, much to the discomfort of her dad Keith (Enrico Colantoni), who was once the town police chief but was ousted when he crossed swords with Neptune’s corrupt elite. He’s since been an honest PI, under whom his daughter honed her investigative skills.
What follows is distinctly underwhelming. The central mystery allows for the reintroduction of plenty of old characters from the show, including Wallace (Percy Diggs III), who’s now the basketball coach at the high school; Mac Mackenzie (Tina Majorino), who can offer some helpful computer advice; Dick (Ryan Hansen), still an uninhibited surfer dude; and Gia (Krysten Ritter), now engaged to a congressman’s son. Newcomers important to the whodunit include Jerry O’Connell as Neptune’s venal chief cop, Gaby Hoffmann as an obsessive DeVille fan, and Martin Starr as ex-classmate Cobb Cobbler. But the solution is the sort of thing one expects from the cruddiest pulp novels, and since it extends back into the gang’s high school years, the question naturally arises: if Veronica is so sharp, why didn’t she intuit that something was wrong back then? And if she’s so smart now, why doesn’t she pick up on a suggestion pointing to the answer dropped by another character early on?
Things aren’t improved by tossing in a load of red herrings, along with an abrupt sidebar involving an obviously premeditated car crash (the implications of which are then studiously ignored). Worse, the Veronica’s showdown with the actual killer sinks to the lowest level, with a silly coincidence based on an antiquated eavesdropping device and a hokey stalking sequence in a dark, dank basement.
Of course the screenplay leaves room for other elements, like a ten-year reunion party that goes from bad to worse, especially when Logan shows up and an infamous sex video is shown by the class still-mean girl. But the most important thread concentrates on Veronica’s love life: will she follow her dream of escaping Neptune and embracing a New York career, sticking with solid Piz and finally freeing herself from the irresistible attraction of Logan? Or will she dump the nice guy and go with her first love, staying in California? It’s a question the movie presents without any nuance, but also flubs by transforming Echolls into a gawky marshmallow who mostly stands around looking sheepish—in effect, just Piz with money—and then having Veronica treat the supposedly unlucky suitor with a disdain that seems positively callous.
As for the cast, the only person who emerges with much distinction is Colantoni, whose warmth and likableness stand out for their understated quality. By contrast Bell comes off simultaneously peevish and juvenile; but then she’s certainly not helped by having to recite reams of pseudo-tough dialogue. Everybody else goes through the motions without making much of an impact for good or ill, though Hoffmann and Hansen certainly take advantage of the opportunities provided by their outsized characters to shoot for the rafters—for the most part successfully (which certainly can’t be said for O’Connell, who overdoes the sleaziness to sad effect). A guest turn by an uncredited young actor who seems to pop up everywhere nowadays adds to the plot but is otherwise pretty lame.
The mostly mediocre acting must be partially ascribed to Rob Thomas, who created the original TV series, co-wrote the movie, and directs it flatly. He does, however, secure decent if unexceptional technical work from the crew, including cinematographer Ben Kutchins, and ever mindful of the future possibilities of his young sleuth, drops into the narrative a stray plot thread about another returnee, Eli Navarro (Frank Capra), aka Weevil, a former biker who’s turned over a new leaf, embracing middle-class domesticity. Thomas doesn’t spend much time on it, but he leaves the thread unresolved at the close—a clear invitation to a sequel.
But the fans who kicked in the funds for “Veronica Mars” (and now might be kicking themselves for doing so) are unlikely to pony up a second time, and unless the movie’s reach expands way beyond them at the boxoffice, it doesn’t seem probable that the studio will step in either. In the antediluvian days when networks did made-for-TV movies, “Veronica Mars” might have spawned a series of occasional telefilms. As things now stand, however, it will probably suffer a second cancellation—a permanent one this time.