The most high-profile Kickstarter movie project to make it to the big screen, Veronica Mars hits theaters today, with a simultaneous VOD release. The TV version ran from 2004 to 2007, pulling ratings that weren’t quite good enough to keep the CW from canceling it. But while its fanbase might not have been a wide river, it was a deep one, and when creator Rob Thomas (not the Matchbox 20 guy) put his idea for a film version on Kickstarter, the hardcore fans put up $1 million in the first five hours, a vote of confidence if ever there was one. But in spite of all the news stories, I went in completely cold, like freshly fallen snow for Kristen Bell to shred on. If I offer any perspective here, it’s that of a total noob, a sociologist stumbling into some strange tribe during their fertility ceremony.
Nearest I can tell, Veronica Mars is about a glib, clever chick who has strangely adversarial relationships with everyone, makes her bones by outsmarting people, and gets fought over by self-deprecating male models who’ve been dressed to fit a costume designer’s idea of “Average Joe.” Is “blandsome” a word? It should be. Everyone in this movie is very blandsome.
Before the screening starts, a local radio guy from one of those Chico and The Tumor-style morning shows gets up in front to congratulate us on being the first people to see the Veronica Mars movie in the Bay Area. Everyone claps, getting pumped about how great we are. He asks if there are any “Marshmellows” in the crowd, which I gather is the demonym for Veronica Mars nation. Two ladies in baseball-style Veronica Mars shirts sitting to my right clap excitedly, literally squealing with anticipation.
The film begins with a lengthy montage explaining everything that Veronica has been up to these past 10 years. Early on, she says something to the effect of, “An 18-year-old private eye, I know, it sounds like the plot of a bad movie.”
Acknowledging the inherent silliness of the premise is a key tenet of Veronica Mars. It seems to be designed for people who deep down love the idea of a plucky teenage private eye, but are aware enough to be a little embarrassed by something so blatantly corny. So every time the action gets silly enough that the guilt of loving it threatens to become unbearable, Veronica makes a cute little joke about it and armpit farts at the camera. If this sounds like a judgment, it’s not. Acknowledging the silliness of your genre is actually one of my favorite narrative strategies. My hero Shane Black made a career out of doing something very similar. To make an SAT analogy, a plucky teenage private eye in a town full of squeaky clean honkies is to a Marshmellow as unshaven Bruce Willis drinking, smoking, and swearing too much while dropping Borscht Belt-y one liners is to me. In that sense, I get it.
So anyway, Veronica Mars has spent the past 10 years graduating Summa Cum Laude with a degree in psychology before finishing at the top of her class at Stanford Law School and moving to New York City, the only city where smart, independent female movie characters have ever lived. Which we learn in the first scene, when high-powered law firm lady Jamie Lee Curtis reads Veronica’s resume across the boardroom table during the interview, that tried-and-true expositional strategy. Jamie Lee wears an asymmetrical pantsuit and is very interested in Veronica coming to work for Truman and Lawstein, because Veronica is very smart, you see.
But just when Veronica is about to fulfill her dreams of a lucrative legal career and marry her self-deprecating, beta male boyfriend (who basically looks like Caspier Van Dien with a button-up shirt hiding his muscles and tousled hair slightly obscuring his chiseled features), her ex-boyfriend gets accused of MURDER! Veronica is drawn back to her hometown of Neptune1 to defend the ex, the son of a movie star who’s dating a famous pop singer, who also happened to go to high school with Veronica and the gang. Apparently, everyone Veronica knows is either famous or related to someone famous, even the minor characters, where there’s no payoff. It’s almost a tic. And every plot point is a media circus, much to Veronica’s supposed chagrin. My sense is that the whole endeavor plays on that high school girl’s desire to be both the center of attention and yet, like, sooo over it, you know? Ugh, it’s not my handsome boyfriend’s fault he’s super famous, his dad is totally, like, a Senator or something. I just wish the paparazzi would leave us alone when we’re making love on his yacht.
So Veronica’s ex shows up to pick her up at the airport, looking even more bland than her current boyfriend, but wearing his Navy JAG uniform. I glean that he’s a fan favorite, because the Marshmellow ladies next to me are clapping and holding each other when he shows up. Their ostentatious excitement reminds me a bit of the Twilight reaction video lady – it’s not enough to be excited, you have to play “excited person” and then broadcast it. The upside of sitting next to them is that they function as a sort of human buzzer that goes off whenever something self-referential happens. Like a busker playing a song that’s important somehow, or Veronica describing herself, in a voice over, as “I know I have a rough exterior but deep down I’m just a Marshmellow.”
Like, she is her own meta fan? Deep down, she’s just like you, the fan of her? …Okay. I mean, Shane Black scripts are indulgent, but they’re not self-indulgent. I want to see Bruce Willis swear, not reference his other movies.
So anyway, the ex tells us that he bought a special plane ticket just so that he could meet Veronica right when she got off the plane instead of waiting outside security like a normal human being. A drooling Veronica tells him that he should wear that uniform, like, always, performing her duty as a more-articulate mouthpiece of the audience’s inner monolog. This guy is even more blandsome than Veronica’s boyfriend, by the way, and his only character traits are that he’s rich, tangentially famous, wears a uniform, and is incredibly caring towards Veronica in a mostly platonic way. If you want to write a character popular with the soccer mom crowd, he is your blue print. This guy is so boring and white, the first line of his IMDB bio says “parents are Doug and Laurie.”
Anyway, Veronica has to solve the murder and blah blah blah. I get the sense of it as a cutesily written noir story for lovers of kitschy relationship dramas – think Law and Order meets Scooby Doo by way of Ally McBeal. I can see how it would work in a 40-minute show, but the movie seems to have given itself the Herculean task of cramming in every character from the show, who would normally pass in and out of the plot naturally over the course of a TV season, but whose presence in a two-hour film requires an intricate fractal of plot devices. The convoluted story kills the breezy tone of the thing and Veronica only brought enough quips for about half this exposition.
Speaking of quips, half of the quips in the very quippy Veronica Mars movie seem to exist solely to congratulate viewers for their knowledge of celebrity gossip. Of course Dax Shepard shows up, to high five you for knowing that he’s married to Kristen Bell. There’s a big cameo from James Franco “trying to put on skinny jeans,” and it’s supposed to be high-larious in the same way that SNL including a random celeb cameo in every sketch is high-larious. (Also, hot guys being self-deprecating is an entire leitmotif).
It’s fitting that all the news segment sequences in Veronica Mars come by way of TMZ, and that the love interest is a dead ringer for Jake Pavelka from The Bachelor, right down to him showing up in an airport wearing a uniform. Also, there are like three celebrity sex tapes that factor into the plot somehow. Basically, this is a movie for people who read UsWeekly but are smart enough to feel embarrassed about it. How do we know they’re smart? Because they listen to NPR! There’s a cameo by Ira Glass, you see, playing himself, of whom Veronica claims she can do a wicked impression. (Congrats for knowing who that is, audience! You’re so smart!)
I guess what I’m trying to say is, I won’t judge, and I don’t hate the player, so to speak. Still, there’s a limit to how invested I can be in one smart girl stereotype’s relationship drama with a herpity derpity ding dong named “Logan.”
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. You can find more of his work on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.
1. So “Neptune” is this barely fictionalized San Diego, complete with actual street names from San Diego, which wouldn’t be weird if they didn’t actually go to the real San Diego in the film at one point. This whole film is riding this meta line in a way that I can’t quite understand.