Sunday, March 16, 2014

True Detective: VERONICA MARS

Veronica Mars was a high school detective, helping her private investigator father with his caseload and taking on all kinds of unofficial work from peers and acquaintances who found themselves in unfortunate circumstances. Inspired by the unsolved murder of her best friend and her father’s line of work, she threw herself into her hobby, getting into sleuthing scrapes and uncovering the seedy underbelly of her economically stratified hometown full of privileged conspiratorial snobs and rough criminal elements alike. Such was the weekly life of this teenager, a breakout role for Kristen Bell, during the 2004 to 2007 three-season run of Veronica Mars, before the TV series was cancelled after having been tinkered with and compromised by a network eager to make it a bigger hit than it ever would be. Ever since, fans have wanted more of her story, or at least a proper finale, and so has Rob Thomas, the show’s creator and showrunner. Years of studio negotiations and a much-hyped Kickstarter campaign later and here we are with a Veronica Mars movie, a big screen continuation of her adventures.

I didn’t watch the series when it aired, but having gorged on it to catch up in time to see the film, I bet anyone who has long loved this show will be most pleased. It picks up a decade after Veronica’s high school graduation. She’s long since moved from her home in Neptune, California. Still dating her Season 3 boyfriend Piz (Chris Lowell), she has graduated law school and is poised to take a job at a New York City law firm. So far she’s been able to resist the call of Neptune and all the entanglements and pain it represents to her. She won’t even be attending her upcoming high school reunion. But, as was often the case in the series, there has been a high-profile murder in her hometown. Troubled rich kid, and Veronica’s old on-again-off-again boyfriend, Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring) is the only suspect. She feels compelled to help, dusting off her old detective skills after having so thoroughly left them behind. Her investigation leads her straight into the reunion, falling back in with old friends (Percy Daggs III, Tina Majorino, Francis Capra) and old antagonists (Ryan Hansen, Krysten Ritter). Soon, the simple murder investigation doesn’t seem so simple.

It’s an entire season of Veronica Mars packed into one 107-minute movie. The screenplay by Rob Thomas and Diane Ruggiero (a writer on the series) has all of the intrigue and relationship melodrama of the show’s overarching big mysteries without the sometimes hit-and-miss nature of the case-of-the-weeks dictated by the demands of the standard 22-episode broadcast order. I found the show often stretched the season-long mysteries too thin, especially by each season’s midpoint, so the necessary compression of the theatrical format solves my biggest problem with the show. It allows for a story that’s tightly structured, full of complications and unexpected twists, and the dark humor and eclectic cultural references fans of the show would expect. It also plays fair with the characters as they’ve been established, providing fans an opportunity to live out the reunion with Veronica, to stay with her father (a warm Enrico Colantoni) once more, and to see all the old Neptune High classmates yet again. It’s nice to see how easily the characters fall back into their old rhythms.

There’s a sense of welcome familiarity here. Even the murder and conspiracies seem like old times. It feels exactly like Veronica Mars, which also makes the whole thing, as directed by Thomas, feel at times like a comfortable TV movie. But, hey, it’s an especially engaging one. It’s an amiable reunion that pulls back the ensemble for another big mystery. The sense of fun is infectious as the movie piles high with callbacks, needling in-jokes, and cameos that add up to an enjoyable story that can stand on its own. Where the movie works best, maybe even for those who know little to nothing about the characters and their pasts, is the tight focus on Veronica with a clear emotional through line. Bell is hugely charming being as much of a clever smart aleck and whip smart investigator as she ever was. But now there’s real reluctance to how comfortable it is falling into old patterns. There is a palpable sense that her teen sleuthing days were a coping mechanism and the continual moral shambles of her hometown is a kind of inescapable tragedy that’s gotten under her skin. 

It makes for a fine detective movie, a digital age grown-up Nancy-Drew-by-way-of-The-O.C. neo-noir, as this ex-P.I. returns to a life she thought she left firmly in the past to find a town that’s only further crumbling under corruption and opportunistic classism. She’s about to fully escape, but finds she craves the rush of cracking a case. She needs to scratch the itch and right some wrongs. Her sense of loyalty to her father, her old friends, and her old life only enables this drive, and makes for an interesting addiction portrait. Maybe it’s also a commentary on the expectations of standard TV plotting. We need everything to be what it was, always ready to perpetuate the old conflicts anew. We need yet another case to be solved. We need the characters ready to play their parts. We need our hero able to step in and do what she does best over and over again.

One of the best things about the series was the way it had consequences linger, the results of a case big or small lasting in the form of grudges, expectations, compromises, criminal records, and plain old emotional traumas. No one emerged clean. The messy business of detective work and soapy mid-aught’s teen drama left marks. The movie is smart to continue along those lines, with stains of the past seeping into seemingly unrelated present day situations, driving old resentments and new crimes. It makes for fun thematic play and a great central hook for a reunion story. The characters are likable company and the mystery is resolved in a way that is most satisfying. But in the end, no one’s addiction will be cured. You just know Veronica will need to be out there solving mysteries. And I know there will be an audience anxious to see her do so.

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