Sunday, March 16, 2014

The FTT Movie Review: Veronica Mars

Shockingly, this is not about sports.

One of the things that you do, or at least what I do, as a father to daughters is that you try to find them stuff in the culture that you can both watch without feeling like you're just punching the clock. Historically, this was also pretty damned difficult, because so many female protagonists were passive, which is just not in my DNA. Lastly, I need something that won't make my brain hurt form lack of use. In my daughter's lifetime, there have been two television series that hit all of these marks and work like mad for both of us: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Veronica Mars.

Mars is the one that you've probably heard less about. It only ran from 2004 to 2007, and the third year was something of a mess. I never saw it when it was live; I only saw it once it hit Netflix Instant Streaming. Lightly rated on an also-run teen network, the elevator hook premise -- snarky pixie blonde teen girl detective -- seems like something that would just strain all credibility. But it was a lot more than that, mostly because it had an insanely great cast, and very sharp writing. After six-plus years of nothing, a Kickstarter campaign went viral (91K+ donors, $5.7mm raised on a $2mm goal) and the fan base ponied up enough to make Warner Brothers match the donations, and Bell and series creator Rob Thomas were able to bring the band back together to make a movie.

The premise is that in the time we haven't seen the lead, she's gone to college and law school, gotten the hell away from the class struggle California dystopia that was the setting for the life of the series, and is ready to take a big money job and marriage in Manhattan. But she gets a call from her troubled old flame, who's been accused of a murder, and it coincides with the 10-year reunion of all of the people she desperately wanted to, well, never see again in her life.

What follows is fun, especially if you're a mark for the series, and that has to describe just about everyone in the audience. Exposition is disposed of with alacrity, red herrings and mini act breaks predominate as if the film can't quite shed its TV archetype, and there are a load of in jokes that hit home. It works because it's not trying to do too much, and for the same reasons why the show worked.

Start with the lead, of course. Kristen Bell has made a lot of money doing a lot of stuff, but Mars is what she's best at. The role lets her go from comedic to dramatic at the drop of a hat, and the range is solid. I'm a huge fan of Enrico Colantoni, who plays her private eye father with a clear integrity and reality of limits. His ability to push and question his daughter while also respecting her abilities and heart just sings to me, and my eldest loves him, too. It makes some of the seams and cracks easier to take. Jason Dohring is good as the male lead, though a bit more toothless than his younger enfant terrible persona. Gaby Hoffman gets some good crazy girl stuff to work through, Krysten Ritter stays int he wheelhouse of tragedy that she nailed in "Breaking Bad", and we both enjoyed it a lot.

But the movie was one big problem, and it's one that can't be underestimated; it's a movie. Veronica Mars works really well as episodic television, with the easy rhythms of guest stars, extended monologues and narration, and just, well, dozen of hours in the hands of people who know what they are doing, rather than 90 minutes from those folks working out of their element. Strings are left untied, relationships resolve too quickly for comfort, and the ending doesn't really feel like an ending, but just an incomplete.

Television is just better than movies now, and Mars' Kickstarter campaign would have been better served to make a streaming season on Netflix, rather than a movie. (The same, by the way, goes for what Joss Whedon did with "Firefly / Senerity.") And unless this movie somehow makes huge bank in the next week, maybe from "Frozen" fans deciding that after Bell's voiceover work, they are going to follow her anywhere... it won't.

But hey, 90 more minutes of good stuff is 90 more minutes of good stuff. And my eldest wants to watch the series again, which means a whole lot less tween and early teen sitcom on my screen...

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