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Dustin Putman

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Veronica Mars  (2014)
2 Stars
Directed by Rob Thomas.
Cast: Kristen Bell, Jason Dohring, Enrico Colantoni, Percy Daggs III, Tina Majorino, Ryan Hansen, Francis Capra, Krysten Ritter, Chris Lowell, Gaby Hoffmann, Amanda Noret, Sam Huntington, Ken Marino, Daran Norris, Max Greenfield, Jerry O'Connell, Christine Lakin, Martin Starr, Kyle Bornheimer, Jessica Camacho, Ryan Devlin, Eddie Jemison, Maury Sterling, Kyle Secor, Lisa Thornhill, Kevin Sheridan, Andrea Estella, Brandon Hillcock, Duane Daniels, Jonathan Chesner, Larry Bates, Jamie Lee Curtis, Justin Long, Dax Shepard, James Franco.
2014 – 107 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for sexuality including references, drug content, violence and strong language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, March 14, 2014.
For three glorious, far-too-fleeting years, "Veronica Mars" was one of the smartest, wittiest treasures on television, a much-acclaimed but underseen original impossible to pin down to one genre but feverishly loved by those who watched it. Premiering on UPN in 2004 before moving to then-new network The CW for its final '06-'07 year, the series was a moving teen drama, a pop-culturally affluent, tart-tongued satire, and a noirish investigational mystery all wrapped in one compulsively entertaining package. In amateur sleuth Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) was a protagonist worth loving and getting behind, a teenage girl with wisdom beyond her years, pain in her past and present, and a lot left to learn. Once a part of the wealthy in-crowd (the "09ers," as they were called in her Southern California hometown of Neptune, based on the last two digits of their zip code) before they turned their back on her, Veronica made new friends and always stayed true to her shamed-sheriff-turned-private-detective dad, Keith (Enrico Colantoni). Best of all, she kept her head held high and didn't care what others thought of her. She knew there were more important things to deal with in life, and this high school experience, too, would pass.

When the show was abruptly canceled following its third season, a lot was left unresolved and no proper good-bye was afforded. In the years since, its cult following has only grown, with fans wishing and hoping the last of Veronica had not been seen. Encouraged by Warner Bros.'s commitment to release a cinematic follow-up if enough money could be found to get it produced, creator Rob Thomas and star Kristen Bell (2013's "Frozen") began a Kickstarter campaign that, with the help of a lot of passionate so-called "Marshmallows," quickly broke all crowdsourcing records. With $5.7-million finally raised—well over the $2-million target goal—the beloved character has been revived from cancellation purgatory to see another day, and hopefully a new movie franchise.

And how is Veronica's first big-screen venture? Pretty good—certainly a fitting tribute to the legacy that is "Mars"—but suggestive that better things are yet to come now that writer-director Rob Thomas and co-writer Diane Ruggiero have found their footing in this new medium. Picking up with many of these characters is like visiting a class reunion—which, as it turns out, is literally what Veronica does while helping out an old friend and lover. No matter how much one might want to rekindle the past, though, time sometimes changes things. There is enough of that old magic found in the film to make it more than worth the viewer's while, but it likewise strikes some false notes that keep it from being an unequivocal home run.

Veronica hasn't worked on a case in nine years—not since she transferred out of Hearst College and went to Stanford. A law student on the verge of landing a coveted position at a New York City firm, she is suddenly called back to Neptune when former flame Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring) comes calling. His ex-girlfriend, former classmate-turned-pop-singer Carrie Bishop/Bonnie DeVille (Andrea Estella), has been found electrocuted in her bathtub, and he's the prime suspect. Veronica is certain that Logan is innocent, subsequently agreeing to stick around for a few extra days to get to the bottom of the crime. In doing so, she not only must jeopardize the fate of her new job, but also her relationship with the good-natured Stosh 'Piz' Piznarski (Chris Lowell). If that weren't enough, there's a 10-year high school reunion right around the corner.

"Veronica Mars" brings back all of the reliable charms that made the series so special. The clever, quippy banter is in full force (if maybe not as consistently fresh), the interpersonal drama is worthy of some oohs, ahhs and swoons, and the central mystery is astutely plotted, setting up enough twists, turns and suspects to keep the audience engaged and guessing. Rob Thomas handles the sticky love triangle between Veronica, Piz and Logan with respect, even when certain parties are destined for heartbreak. A scene where Veronica and Logan put aside their investigation for a nighttime drive to the sounds of "Chicago" by Surfjan Stevens is lovely, punctuated by Ben Kutchins' (2011's "The Art of Getting By") dreamily lit lensing. The third-act showdown with the unveiled killer concludes a little anticlimactically, but builds to an inspired level of suspense.

On the downside, the reunion is a bit of a bust, happening too early in the proceedings and missing out on the nostalgia trip it could have been had the soundtrack followed suit with one character's desire to hear era-specific tunes by The Black Eyed Peas and, yes, the other Rob Thomas. The supporting members of the cast are additionally not always used to their fullest, with Percy Daggs III and Tina Majorino (2004's "Napoleon Dynamite"), as Veronica's best pals Wallace and Mac, not satisfactorily tied into the plot. Where they are currently at beyond their jobs is never divulged, the two of them treated as little more than afterthoughts. The complete absence of Teddy Dunn, who played Veronica's first love Duncan during the show's first two seasons, is also disappointing. More memorably embroiled in the goings-on is Gaby Hoffmann (2010's "Life During Wartime"), a spirited comic standout as Bonnie DeVille's biggest fan, the eccentric Ruby Jetson.

If "Veronica Mars" gets one thing right—and, let's be serious, it gets a lot of things right—the most lasting impression is the one it leaves its viewers with. Veronica makes a number of sacrifices on her path to clearing Logan's name, exposing the corrupt Sheriff Dan Lamb (Jerry O'Connell), and putting the real culprit behind bars. She knows what she's worked so hard for and recognizes that people she cares about are bound to get hurt. The decisions she ultimately makes are tough, but still, in a way, easier than she expects. In her heart, she knows where her destiny lies, and her choice to stop running from it signifies a special growth that should carry her on to bigger, better cases and exploits. The star of the series and film now and forever is Kristen Bell, whose naturally effervescent embodiment of the strong, resourceful Veronica remains one of the great fictional heroines of our time. Her work with Enrico Colantoni (2011's "Contagion"), Jason Dohring and Chris Lowell (2011's "The Help"), returning as Keith Mars, Logan Echolls and Stosh 'Piz' Piznarski, respectively, provide many of the picture's brightest and most heartfelt moments. It is easy to walk out of "Veronica Mars" wishing about what could have been, but expectations have been so high the film was never going to live up to them. On its own terms, with the notion that Veronica will always have criminal cover-ups and conspiracies to rip wide open, this is a commendable but not outstanding first feature. Hopefully, this won't be the last time we see this special world Rob Thomas conceived of ten years ago. There's a reason the filmmakers, the actors and the faithful fans are far from ready to let it go.
© 2014 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman