Movie review: ‘Veronica Mars’ returns to dark, witty life

However improbable its existence may be, however unconventional its funding was, the “Veronica Mars” movie exists. And it's a blast.

Based on the low-rated, lower-budget UPN and CW TV drama about a teen girl private eye – “Trust me, I know how dumb that sounds,” the adult Veronica (Kristen Bell) admits in the film's opening seconds – directed and co-written (with Diane Ruggiero) by the show's creator, Rob Thomas, the “Veronica Mars” movie was paid for largely(*) by a crowdfunded Kickstarter campaign, which created a dynamic unheard-of in mainstream moviemaking. Traditionally, audiences pay for a film after it's made (and if not enough see it, the picture loses money). In this case, the show's fans were so eager to see Veronica, Keith, Logan and the rest return to life that they shelled out money ahead of time, literally making the movie possible.

(*) Fans pledged $5.7 million of their own money to the project, a decent chunk of which was going to be redirected to paying for fulfillment of the many Kickstarter rewards (t-shirts, posters, digital downloads of the film and more). In the end, Warner Bros. agreed to pay for fulfillment so Thomas could use the whole $5.7 mil on the movie, and later added some extra cash to pay for a few reshoots and additional scenes.

And that reversal of timing also created something of a reversal of power. Not only did the amount of funding (the Kickstarter hit its minimal goal within 12 hours of being announced) determine the scope of the movie, but the fans' advance investment in it made Thomas feel an extra obligation to satisfy them.

While the Kickstarter campaign was still in full swing, Thomas told me he initially debated taking Veronica in a new direction, “or there's the 'give the people what they want' version. And I think partly because it's crowd-sourced, I'm going with the 'give the people what they want' version… 'Let's not piss people off who all donated. Let's give them the stuff that I think that they want in the movie.'”

This wasn't creativity-by-committee. Fans couldn't demand that Thomas and Ruggiero include certain plot points, or exclude certain characters. (If they could, Chris Lowell almost certainly wouldn't be back as Veronica's divisive season 3 boyfriend Piz.) Still, some of the best moments on the series – and in much of serialized fiction – comes not from giving the audience what they want, but what they need. As much as I admired and understood Thomas' desire to satisfy the people who were literally paying his salary on this one, I also thought back to how many fans were initially unhappy with the series' terrific final episode, a dark, unhappy ending that stayed uncompromisingly true to the show's film noir roots. Had Thomas been putting the fans' desires first and foremost back then, I wondered, would the series have ended with Veronica's father Keith (Enrico Colantoni) winning the election for sheriff, Veronica and her star-crossed lover Logan (Jason Dohring) reuniting with no build-up, and perhaps her dog Backup having a litter of adorable puppies? Fan service for its own sake can be a very dangerous thing.

And the “Veronica Mars” movie is fan service-y, at times brazenly so. Nearly every notable character comes back (sometimes seamlessly fitting into the story, sometimes part of an otherwise unnecessary detour), there are winks to key moments in the real and fictional life of the show (including a reference to the aborted plan to continue the series with Veronica as a rookie FBI agent), a scene where Veronica and Piz walk past a busker playing the show's theme song and various opportunities for Bell and Dohring to smolder brightly in each other's presence.

But Thomas and Ruggiero have found a way to make a movie that the fans will love without straight-up pandering to them.

If the movie interests you at all, you probably know the basics by now: Veronica hasn't worked a case since the one at the end of the series killed Keith's election hopes and got him in a lot of trouble, but when Logan gets into a jam, Veronica comes running home to help him, in a week that coincidentally includes their 10-year high school reunion.

The plot brings back most of the characters, while also reviving the show's class warfare theme (which feels even more timely now than it did in the mid-'00s), but the film doesn't just feel like a double-length episode of the series. The scope feels bigger, the look is richer, and the focus on who Veronica is and why she's so good at this job goes much deeper than the show usually did.

It's in that character examination that the movie transcends the “give the people what they want” mandate to become something better and more complex. The movie brings Veronica back to her hometown to hang out with high school pals Wallace (Percy Daggs III), Mac (Tina Majorino) and Weevil (Francis Capra) again, lets her trade more insults with Logan's d-bag buddy Dick (Ryan Hansen), hustle the local sheriff, take photos with her trusty telephoto lens, and otherwise do all the things we enjoyed in the series. But the movie's mystery is really an excuse to tell a story about how Veronica being the character we love is really terrible for her. At a certain point in the movie, that dark ending to the TV show starts to actually seem like the best thing that could have happened to her, while what's happening to her in the present is simultaneously triumphant and sad. (Even the Piz-haters may come around on the guy by the end, or at least understand the very important thematic role he plays in the movie.) And where following a teen character into adulthood can be problematic (see the later years of “Buffy”), here the transition works perfectly. In high school, Veronica was a girl getting mixed up in dangerous, adult situations; a decade later, she's a grown-up who can't let go of the fun-and-games activity of her youth.

Though there are a few celebrity cameos, plus  opportunities for Bell to utter some words she couldn't say on UPN, the experience as a whole feels true to the show's origins. Bell slips right back into her familiar, complicated rhythms with Colantoni (Veronica and Keith's relationship remains among the most complex and rewarding father-daughter pairings in modern fiction), Dohring and the others, the banter crackles (Veronica's pop culture references this time range from “$25,000 Pyramid” to “Sharknado”), and the California noir of it all only looks better on a big screen. As someone who loved the show, but was also well aware of its bumps in later seasons, I felt very satisfied with this return.

As for people who never watched the show, there's an effort made to fill them in and hold their hands at appropriate moments. I would say it's a film where the story will be easy to follow for a newbie, and where they may appreciate both the performances (Bell's depth and versatility, in particular, will be eye-opening to anyone who only knows her from the many dumb romantic comedies she's made in the years since) and the snappy dialogue for its own sake, but where the impact – both the dramatic beats and the smaller character moments – won't be nearly as satisfying without 64 episodes worth of history with Veronica and friends. (Parts of the high school reunion sequence may be impenetrable to newcomers, as so many characters come flying at Veronica that there isn't time for her to introduce them to us via voiceover; then again, certain characters like Veronica's bitchy nemesis Madison are so universal that they may not need explaining.)

Like the “Firefly” sequel movie “Serenity,” this one's going to have to rely almost entirely on pre-existing fans if Thomas wants to be able to make more movies. (There is going to be a series of novels about Veronica, spinning out of the events of the movie, and the story leaves several plot threads dangling for a sequel.) On the plus side, the movie cost Warner Bros. peanuts, even after they chipped in a bit. On the minus side, over 70 percent of the Kickstarter backers get a downloadable copy of the movie, on the day of release, as one of their rewards, that they may not feel the need to spend even more money to see it in a theater.

As we're less than a week away from the movie's release on Friday in theaters (it will also be available for rent and/or purchase via Amazon, iTunes and many cable and satellite On Demand services), I'm not worrying much about sequels. The movie absolutely rekindled my interest in this character and her world, and it demonstrated that Thomas and Bell can still make darkly beautiful music together, and if there are more movies, I'll eagerly line up to see them. But the fact that we are discussing a “Veronica Mars” movie at all – and that it's as much fun as this is – is so remarkable that I'm just going to sit back and enjoy the moment.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at