Review: ‘Veronica Mars’ will delight old fans and may even win new ones

AUSTIN – It was smack dab in the middle of last year's SXSW festival that “Veronica Mars” made news with their massively successful Kickstarter campaign, so it seems only right that they would bring the film to premiere at the festival this year. As someone who enjoyed the show enormously while it was on the air, I am relieved to report that the film felt to me like it successfully recaptured the spirit of the show's first season. My only question at this point is how it will work for audiences who didn't see the show, which, based on the ratings, would seem to be pretty much everyone.

In the series, Veronica was a typical 15-year-old girl living in Neptune, California, a small community with a pronounced class struggle going on, until her best friend Lilly Kane (Amanda Seyfried) was murdered. Veronica's father Keith (Enrico Colantoni) was Neptune's sheriff, and when he became convinced that Lilly's billionaire father was the murderer, it ended up ruining his reputation. Someone else was arrested and convicted, and Keith ended up opening a private investigator's office. Veronica's mother left, and Veronica ended up channeling all of her private pain into working for her father and, on the side, working to solve Lilly's murder. The entire first season of the series dealt with that one story arc, and week to week, Veronica also got involved in cases that centered on her high school peers. It was a winning formula, with a very sharp verbal sense of humor and a willingness to tackle some ugly, difficult topics in the process like date rape, steroid abuse, alcoholism, and the death of the middle class.

Part of the problem with trying to make a single feature film to revisit the series is that the show's creator, Rob Thomas, did a great job of fleshing out Neptune and creating a sizable ensemble of returning characters. Bringing all of them back and trying to give them all something substantial to do would seem to be an impossible juggling act, but Thomas pulls it off with aplomb. The movie opens with Veronica fresh out of law school interviewing with a big money firm in Manhattan. She addresses her own past during the interview in a way that not only brings a new audience up to date but that also articulates Veronica's struggle to not be the person she was. Over the course of the series, her investigations cost her friends and hurt her in so many personal ways, and she's reached a point by the beginning of this film where she knows that she has to move on and let go of the past.

So of course, the past comes calling in the form of Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), her one-time enemy and one-time boyfriend. He is accused of killing his rock star girlfriend, and he reaches out to Veronica, asking her to come home to Neptune to help him pick a lawyer. Logan represents all of her self-destructive tendencies in one nice neat package, and her current boyfriend, Stosh “Piz” Pinzarski (Chris Lowell), knows exactly what the danger is in allowing her to go home. He also knows that no one can dissuade Veronica from something once her mind is made up, and so she leaves, promising to come back to New York within a few days.

Her trip home happens to come at the same time as her high school reunion, giving Thomas and his co-writer Diane Ruggiero a chance to bring everyone back. One of the thrills for fans will be seeing just how much of Neptune returns, and how well Thomas is able to make it feel like this is the same town. I love the way he presents this community that is filthy rich with technology money and Hollywood money, but with a lower class that is legitimately victimized by those with all the power. It's a great setting for the sort of neo-noir stories Thomas wants to tell. Early on in this film, as Keith is driving Veronica back to their house, they end up seeing a traffic stop by the local sheriffs, designed to harass “undesirables.” Neptune seems to have gotten worse in the years since the show ended, and seeing just how bad it is starts to rekindle the same fire that drove Veronica in the first place.

Fans of the show were hotly divided about the men in Veronica's life, and the film plays with that tension in a smart way. Dohring fascinates me on film. He's not an especially polished actor, but there's something very intuitive about his choices. Logan ended up joining the military in the years since the show ended, and he seems like he has become a better man as a result. There is still a darkness around him, though, and Dohring's always been good at playing the trouble bubbling just under Logan's exterior. He and Bell still have great chemistry, and they manage to sell the idea that they can't stay away from each other, no matter how great the fear that they might be destroying their lives in the process.

I could have used about four more hours of material between Veronica and Keith. One of the best things about the show was the relationship between them, as unconventional and progressive a father-daughter relationship as we've ever seen on film, and when you watch Colantoni's face when he first sees Bell in the film, it is so sweet and so real. I strive to treat my own kids like people, not like babies, and it creates lines of communication between us that seem effortless, and I see that in the Keith/Veronica dynamic as well. No matter how many scenes they have together, I think it's safe to say I would have always been happy with more, which is just a testament to how good they are together.

The film's mystery is all about secrets from the past, and “Veronica Mars” has always made it clear that secrets are cancer, destructive and corrosive. It's nice to see Veronica switch back into investigative mode, her own natural curiosity just as strong as her sense of indignation over the power balance in Neptune. When the show began, there was something precocious about Veronica's rapid-fire sense of humor and her unflappable pursuit of the truth. Now that she's an adult, it doesn't feel precocious anymore. Now it's hard-earned, paid for with all the pain that Veronica's gone through, and while much of the film is very funny, it never treats the underlying crime as a joke.

The films builds to a place that suggests how we could end up seeing more “Veronica Mars” films in the future, and it seems clear to me that there is plenty of gas left in the tank. Thomas has a sharp eye for how to translate the show's style to the big screen, and cinematographer Ben Kutchins makes sure this doesn't just feel like a longer episode of the TV show. What Thomas really gets right is that he didn't just tell another story about Veronica, but instead told a pivotal, important story about a moment where Veronica must decide if she's going to embrace her real nature or spend her adult life hiding from it.

One thing I found fascinating about the film is that Bell was obviously just post pregnancy during shooting, and there is an obvious difference from how she normally looks. I thought it must have been shot during the pregnancy, but fans have informed me that they started just after she gave birth. Bell is, as always, lovely, but the physical change helps sell the idea that this is not the same Veronica from the series. It's almost a subliminal thing, but it ends up paying off.

I really can't imagine how the film will land for audiences that are not already familiar with these characters. There is a definite feeling that these are old friends that we are being reunited with, and I hope new viewers don't feel left out. I also hope that this works well enough that we get more stories about these people in the future. It was a real pleasure catching up with them again, and I'd hate to have that much time elapse once more before we head back to Neptune.

If you're a fan of the show and you're planning to attend the cast reunion that is part of next week's PaleyFest in Los Angeles, make sure to say hello to our own Alan Sepinwall, who is moderating the panel. Should be a blast.

“Veronica Mars” opens in theaters on March 14.