MARCH 22, 2014
REMEMBER HOW THE THIRD and final season of the short-lived TV show Veronica Mars ended? Veronica (Kristen Bell), a hardboiled teenage PI, had just uncovered the corrupt secret society led by the father of her best friend, Lilly, whose murder launched Season 1; meanwhile, it looked like Veronica had inadvertently sabotaged her father’s re-election as county sheriff — but the votes weren’t in yet. After casting her ballot, Veronica walked out into a steady drizzle, the first strains of “It Never Rains in Southern California” swelled, and the credits rolled. And that was the last we saw of Veronica Mars. The CW cancelled the noir-inflected teen drama, despite its cult following, and whatever storylines had been cued for the fourth season never materialized.
To end the series with a gloomy local election and a handful of revelations about one of the show’s episodic mysteries was hardly satisfying; it lacked closure. Fans wanted more from a show that had begun with the collapse of Veronica’s perfect childhood: her best friend’s murder, her father’s expulsion from the sheriff’s office, her mother’s disappearance, and Veronica’s own rape. Veronica couldn’t resolve what had happened to her life, but she was uncanny when it came to cracking a case. (Admittedly, as the urgency of Season 1’s motivation waned in subsequent seasons, so did the quality of the TV show.) Yet as good as she was, the mysteries that Veronica solved couldn’t be the show’s end. We needed to know what happened to Veronica Mars.
Seven years after those final credits rolled, the Veronica Mars crew has responded by giving us the series finale we never had: Veronica Mars, the movie. Written and directed by showrunner Rob Thomas, and funded by a Kickstarter campaign that drew over 91,000 donations, the movie feels comfortably like an episode of the TV show, which used to pack enough plotting into its weekly time slot to feel like a short film. By adding an hour to the usual 45-min episode, Veronica Mars has more time to take on its three storylines: a murder mystery that dovetails with a subplot concerning the corrupt law enforcement in Veronica’s hometown of Neptune, California — both of which are encompassed by the real question of where Veronica’s future lies. There’s even an awkward recap sequence, not unlike the “Previously on Veronica Mars…” segment that would begin each episode of the show.
Veronica, we learn, has given up the private investigator biz. Cold turkey. Hasn’t touched a case since leaving Neptune nine years ago. Instead, she’s cum laude’d her way through the kind of schools she didn’t have the money to attend during the TV series, emerging with a law degree and the wholesome schlemiel of a boyfriend left over from Season 3 (remember Piz?). As she sits in a sleek New York law office, fielding hardball interview questions from a silver-haired Jamie Lee Curtis, the movie presents us with everything that Veronica strove for back in Neptune, where the deck was always stacked against her. Her PI father, still played with just the right balance of mischief and resignation by a now graying Enrico Colantoni, will remind her of this more than a few times.
There’s just one thing, though. And that’s the fact that her ne’er-do-well ex-boyfriend, the deliciously acerbic Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring, whose age now lends the part a soberness) has just been charged with murder. Veronica, her sprezzatura intact, finds herself back in Neptune, the SoCal beach town that still seethes with the kind of crimes that were fodder for Seasons 1 through 3. Ostensibly, she’s just going to help Logan decide on a defense lawyer. But this is Neptune, after all. “Nothing here happens accidentally,” Veronica said back in Season 2, just after a school bus careened off a cliff.
Of course Veronica is not in Neptune accidentally. She’s there so all of us can achieve closure. (Did I mention that her return happens to coincide with her Neptune High School ten year reunion?) But there are a few old cases that need reopening. And so we get a tour of Neptune, nine years after Veronica left it. The class divide and city corruption that animated so much of the series is worse than ever. That sheriff’s election back in Season 3? Keith Mars didn’t win it. In the series pilot, Veronica welcomed us to Neptune High with the cutting observation that, if you go to school here, “either your parents are millionaires, or your parents work for millionaires.” Now, our welcome back is a firsthand look at the increasingly corrupt sheriff department’s frame-up of a kid in the latter category. But while it’s debatable whether Neptune without Veronica is more like Gotham without Batman or Los Angeles without Philip Marlowe, we return to see more than just how bad it is. Half the fun, really, is in revisiting Veronica’s enduring allies and antagonists. Among the standouts is Ryan Hansen’s performance as the smug and wealthy surfer dude, Dick Casablancas, who never seems to notice that he keeps putting his foot in his mouth. He’s like a golden retriever who lazily wags his tail, oblivious to the bigotry and entitlement of its every swing. The father-daughter banter between Colantoni and Bell, always one of the show’s most compelling elements, has also aged well. It still sparkles, but perhaps because Veronica is now a grown-up returning home, the years underlying their easy repartee feel like bedrock.
Veronica remains just as handy with a secret recording device, telephoto lens, and retrieval of classified information as she ever was. For longtime Veronica Mars fans, part of the pleasure of the movie is how instinctively Veronica falls back into the rhythms and reflexes of the part-time PI we knew on TV. And as she follows leads on the murder case, simultaneously deflecting or dodging calls from Piz back in New York and the law firm that just hired her, the movie builds to the question of V’s future: will Veronica throw away everything she’s worked so hard for just to sink back into the gritty work of a PI in the seamy underbelly of Neptune?
There’s a telling, if slightly awkward move that the film makes, which is to have the Veronica voice-over repeatedly liken her pull toward crime-solving to that of an addict toward his fix. The running analogy goes so far as to recall a line or two from the Serenity Prayer about accepting what you cannot change. And while the overused voice-over spells out the lesson in a way that’s more like the pat didacticism of Sex and the City than the gallows humor of Murder, My Sweet, it’s getting at something crucial to both Veronica Mars and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the show’s TV predecessor in showing strong teenage girls fighting off bad guys. Both of these shows were very much about figuring out who you are and coming to accept what you can’t change. Buffy couldn’t go back to being a popular high school cheerleader; she was the slayer. Veronica couldn’t go back to her charmed life before her best friend was murdered; she had seen too much. Just as Buffy used the conceit of the horror genre, setting high school on a Hellmouth with ceaseless monsters to slay, Veronica Mars found the fatalism of film noir in high school, where everyone is out to get you and authority figures are either corrupt or completely ineffectual. Throughout the show’s three seasons, even as it was clear that Veronica had something akin to super powers when it came to cracking a case, the hope was always that she would make it out of Neptune and into a legitimate career. A career that required neither Tasers and pepper spray nor a pit bull named Backup. In this hope, hardboiled Veronica differed from the Philip Marlowes and Sam Spades of the world. Both she and her father were counting on the fact that she could make it out. Buffy had seven seasons for its heroine to come to terms with her lot in life. Veronica Mars didn’t make it that far; when the show was cut off in 2007, Veronica was still in Neptune, still solving crimes in her spare time, and still angling for a better deal.
Rob Thomas’s idea of locating his teenage heroine in the world of noir was appealing not just because it meant the girl got all the great one-liners. It also brought a level of realism to the world of teenage girls: when Marlowe or Spade at last unravel whatever mystery they’ve been worrying at, their everyday problems don’t vanish; the world never becomes less noir. The same was true of Veronica Mars, who could always crack the case but never quite make a dent in the rotten world of Neptune. Perhaps that’s what’s most satisfying about this series finale of a movie. The earth doesn’t spin backwards, the Hellmouth certainly doesn’t close — nor does Neptune’s class divide. But Veronica Mars, as heavy handed as her familiar voice-over may be, gains a little insight into herself. It doesn’t hurt that she can still hold her own in the repartee department.