[19 May 2014]
At first, the Blu-ray release of Veronica Mars, the feature film based on the defunct cult TV series, feels like something of an afterthought. The series was famously (or at least internet-famously) resurrected six years after its cancellation via a record-setting Kickstarter campaign to fund a feature film, all of which built to that film’s March release in several hundred theaters and various VOD platforms. Now, a few months later, the official home-video release follows with understandably less fanfare.
However, in terms of the movie’s modest scale, having Veronica Mars on disc feels more of a piece with the three already existing seasons of the TV show; the theater experience (preferably having included a raucous and delighted crowd of fans) is the bonus souvenir, not unlike one of those Fathom events where multiplexes broadcast a play or a concert. That’s not to diminish the pleasures of Veronica Mars as a feature—rather, it’s further acknowledgment that the movie makes a lot more sense as gift to fans than as a stand-alone adventure.
In theory, it should stand alone just fine. Though the movie offers a previously-on catch-up montage before the opening title, the premise is simple enough to get by with even less: Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) is the daughter of Keith Mars (Enrico Colantoni), a private eye in the fiercely class-divided town of Neptune, California. In high school, she assisted her father with cases, and took on her own at school, like a noirish Nancy Drew. The series included two major season-long mysteries and several multiple-episode mystery arcs, but its ability to craft stand-alone cases of the week amidst its master-plotting was often underrated, and that potential for one big case makes the show an unusually strong candidate for the feature treatment.
Series creator Rob Thomas fashioned Veronica Mars as a reunion movie, for both the audience and the characters. Around the time of her ten-year high school reunion, Veronica, just out of law school, returns to Neptune—not to celebrate but to help her ex-boyfriend Logan (Jason Dohring), who has been charged with the murder of his pop-star girlfriend. The audience, then, gets to check in with Veronica’s friends and enemies a decade or so later.
They’re also treated (or subjected, depending on what they most valued about the show) to much Veronica-Logan mooning; a relationship that started as a great surprise on the TV show has long since dead-ended in terms of dramatic or comedic possibility, but director and co-writer Thomas can’t resist those heavy doses of fan service. Logan, with his checkered past full of anger and impulse control, could have made a great murder suspect; when he turns up in ill-fitting military dress whites to meet Veronica at the airport, the movie more or less clears him while kicking fan-fantasy into romantic overdrive (and, over the course of the movie, dismissing both Veronica and Logan’s other attachments far too easily).
If that aspect of the TV series doesn’t revive well for the movie, there’s plenty else to distract from the wan romance. Thomas uses the many returning cast members and guest stars beautifully and mixes in a few newcomers: Gaby Hoffman and Martin Starr weren’t on the TV show, but their integration into the divided world of Neptune feels more like the unearthing of secrets than brazen retcons, serving Thomas’s interest in class. In Veronica’s absence, her hometown’s class war has continued to simmer and now threatens to boil over, thanks to a corrupt police department, the rich getting richer, and the poor getting angrier.
The movie adds to this tension within Veronica herself. Having her claim, via her usual voiceover narration, an “addictive personality” that wasn’t quite her primary engine on the television series nonetheless lends the movie some noirish fatalism; the movie smartly plays the desire to see a character do what’s best against the desire to see what’s most fun to watch. One of the best sequences has Veronica dancing and goofing around with her friends while conducting sleuthy interviews with other party guests on the side, unable to stop herself from cracking the case.
The murder mystery itself is pretty good, if not series-best (a follow-up novel, The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line, has more intricate plotting)—and might have been improved by some more filmmaking panache. The film doesn’t add much of visual scope with its widened aspect ratio; Veronica Mars the movie is more polished than Veronica Mars the show, but at times I missed the latter’s scrappy low-budget noir aesthetic. The revival doesn’t look like a big feature film so much as a somewhat nicer TV series.
The Blu-ray doesn’t reveal any additional flourishes, visual or otherwise; a group of deleted scenes runs only four minutes, mostly re-arranging information that comes through more efficiently in the feature. The few tiny grace notes that emerge come from slightly more Veronica-Keith interaction, but even this is bare-bones, as you might expect with a small production; Thomas likely wasn’t afforded the time or money to shoot a lot of extra material. Just as much time goes to the disc’s gag reel, emphasizing the cast’s warmth and elation to be back together (surprising, then, that there isn’t a commentary track).
The most substantial extra is an hourlong making-of documentary that focuses heavily on the Kickstarter campaign that made the film possible—and with it, a fair amount of self-mythologizing disguised as fan flattery (Veronica Mars being truly remarkable to inspire such attention from such amazing fans, et cetera). It’s neat to see Thomas and company watching the Kickstarter grow in real time (though they must have sensed interest if they thought to film themselves doing so), and there are a few telling moments, as when Thomas admits that with his devotion to the Kickstarter campaign, he “hadn’t spent much energy” on figuring out the details of the movie itself until the fundraising was up and running. But like the movie, the contents of the Blu-ray aim mostly to please fans—for worse and for better all at once.