“People say I’m a marshmallow,” quips the titular, once-teenage gumshoe of Veronica Mars, in an early tip of the hat to all the self-described marshmallows in the audience. The shout-out is appropriate: Without the emotional and financial support of the diehards, this crowd-funded revival—a big-screen extension of a canceled small-screen gem—would never have made it into multiplexes. Thankfully, the Veronica Mars movie wastes only a fraction of its precious running time on such winks and nudges. (There’s also an acoustic rendition of the Dandy Warhols anthem that kicked off each episode.) But for better and worse, series creator Rob Thomas has crafted a feature-length exercise in fan service—a game if slightly futile attempt to condense a whole season’s worth of detective work, SoCal melodrama, and whip-smart banter into one load-bearing film.
The strain shows, though not fatally. After an opening montage of footage from the series, assembled as a courtesy to the uninitiated, Veronica Mars gets down to throat-clearing business, bridging the gap between the inconclusive finale of season three and the status quo of this seven-years-later continuation. Veronica (Kristen Bell, back in the role of a lifetime) now lives in Manhattan, having abandoned the investigator business for a more lucrative career in lawyering. She’s also committed to Piz (Chris Lowell), that drippy nice guy she met in college, whose appeal always seemed strictly limited to his habit of not punching people in the face. Speaking of which: It’s bad boy ex-boyfriend Logan (Jason Dohring), accused of the murder of his pop-star squeeze, who draws Veronica back to the seedy, sunny stomping grounds of Neptune, California. Here, she reluctantly takes the case, falling back into old habits and into the company of old allies and foes. (That theme song, about being friends a long time ago, suddenly has added resonance.)
Veronica Mars smartly frames its story as one of compulsive backsliding: Just as fans could never quite quit this indelible character, Veronica finds it difficult to cold turkey the Philip Marlowe lifestyle, to say nothing of the addictive allure of her trouble-prone former flame. Swirling its crime-fiction intrigue around a high school reunion, the film plays like a reunion itself, deftly reintroducing the various figures caught in Veronica’s orbit—her aging private-eye father (Enrico Colantoni), comic cretin foil Dick (Ryan Hansen), the heroine’s assorted sidekicks and nemeses. Every cameo appearances feels organic. No callback feels forced. As a nostalgia trip, and a valentine to the virtues of its terrific source material, Veronica Mars gets the job done.
As a whodunit, however, it leaves a bit to be desired. Forget murderous celebrities, venomous rich kids, and the heavy hand of the local law: This time, the biggest obstacle Veronica faces is an abbreviated timeframe. On television, Bell’s brainy snoop had season-long arcs in which to work her magic—and so, too, did Thomas, who could plant clues and red herrings across hours of plot, the episodic format allowing him to create a sprawling ensemble of suspects. Working here with the running-time equivalent of about two episodes, Thomas constructs a much less compelling mystery, cutting corners to conform his serialized storytelling style to the demands of a one-and-done feature. He’s no master stylist either; hopes that Veronica Mars would finally gain a noir aesthetic to complement its neo-noir subject matter are dashed by the televisual visuals. (Though, to be fair, the series always strove to juxtapose the darkness of its themes with the brightness of its environment.)
Of course, many fell in love with Veronica Mars not for its detective-yarn plotting, but for its sharp characterizations and soapy romantic entanglements. Even in that regard, however, the movie falls a little short: Piz remains an obvious Baxter, an embodiment of the “normal” life Veronica thinks she wants, so the love triangle feels a bit perfunctory. And Logan, once a volatile presence, has softened with age into a mellower heartthrob, not so different from the dull nerd he’s competing against for his ex’s affection. At its best, the series made one wonder if this wealthy hothead was right for Veronica; by catering to Team Logan, Thomas extinguishes that tension. For the most part, Veronica Mars plays like a very solid episode of the series, the kind unlikely to rank among fan favorites. It could, however, serve as fine fuel for a sequel, one that wouldn’t find Veronica resisting—for half of her time on screen—the urge to do what she does best. Keep your hearts (and wallets) open, marshmallows.