SXSW 2014: ‘Veronica Mars’ Returns, Triumphantly

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AUSTIN, TX: Well, thank whatever deity you hold dear, they didn’t fuck it up. The long-awaited, much-anticipated, crowd-funded Veronica Mars movie is the kind of project that could spin into disaster in any number of ways, yet carefully avoids all (well, most) of them; it’s a good thriller, a great comedy, and an excellent reunion, and the rowdy crowd at its Saturday SXSW world premiere couldn’t get enough of it.

Director and co-writer (and original series creator) Rob Thomas strikes an admirable balance of fan service and introduction—it’s a movie that plays fine if you aren’t already a diehard fan, though said fandom sure as hell doesn’t hurt, as it’s peppered with sly little in-jokes (like a Kickstarter gag and a mention of a rumor that Veronica was with the FBI) and welcome cameos. Those poor souls who haven’t previously had the pleasure of meeting Veronica Mars are brought up to speed in the opening sequence, a quick, stylish jaunt through the backstory; the even shorter version, per Veronica’s accompanying voice-over, is “A teenage private eye? Trust me, I know how dumb that sounds.” Veronica Mars was always a show juicier than its premise, which mostly served as a hook for biting class commentary, moody neo-noir seediness, and one of the finest father/daughter relationships in all of popular culture.

Left to Right: Writer/Director Rob Thomas and actors Percy Daggs III, Francis Capra, Ryan Hansen, and Chris Lowell. Photo Credit: Jason Bailey / Flavorwire

The first act is taxed with both filling in all that background for the newbies and bringing everyone else up to date, and as a result, it’s a little fumbly; there’s an uncertainty to the writing and playing, a sense that the heavy expositional burdens are keeping everyone from hitting the groove. But once Thomas and his cast find their footing, it’s a high-spirited, foxy little treat, quippy and fast and frequently enchanting.

Watching Bell disarmingly scrap her way through the tale, it’s no wonder she campaigned so hard to get the movie made—the years since its tragic cancellation have seen her stumble through flaccid vehicles like When in Rome and You Again, struggling desperately to find a character that could package her specific, spiky charisma as masterfully as this one did. She falls back into it without much trouble, effortlessly recapturing the electricity of her on-again/off-again relationship with Logan (Jason Dohring) and the warmth of the vibe with father Keith (Enrico Colantoni, whose entrance is utterly priceless).

“When I was playing Veronica Mars, I got to a point halfway through season one where I felt like I wasn’t acting any more—I was the most present I’ve ever been as an actress” Bell told the audience at Saturday’s premiere. “So when we were gonna do this again, after so many years of not doing her, I was worried I couldn’t find her as easily… But I was pleasantly surprised to realize that it just—sometimes characters just exist in your body and you just pull ‘em up again.”

A tender moment between (fictional) father and daughter: Jason Dohring, Enrico Colantoni, and Kristen Bell. Photo credit: Jason Bailey / Flavorwire

We catch up with a Veronica who has long given up the P.I. game; she’s just finished law school and is up for a well-paying job at a New York firm. But she’s pulled back to good ol’ Neptune when Logan is accused of murdering an ex-girlfriend, and her attempts to clear him end up leading to another, earlier crime. Oh, and wouldn’t you know it, all this coincides with her ten-year class reunion, a nice little comic set piece that goes to show how nothing ever changes when it comes to terrible rich kids.

That said, the themes of haves and have-nots so present in the show get short shrift here (aside from an opening aside that “When the class war comes, Neptune will be ground zero”), while some of the music choices and voice-over narration are a little too on the nose. But these complaints are hard to voice too loudly when a film is as pleasurable as this one, and when we’re having such a good time catching up with these old friends; if anything, it’s striking that we’ve seen so little of so many fine actors in the years since Mars left the air. “When it became a fan-funded movie,” Thomas explained while surrounded by the cast in the post-movie Q&A, “everyone up here has fans, people who love these actors in the show… I wanted to give the people what they wanted, and honestly, I’m a Veronica Mars fan, and I wanted to work with all these actors and find a natural way to roll them in.”

But this is Bell’s show, and she kills it. It was never just a great performance; it was a perfect fusion of actor and role, a resourceful, brilliant, and tough young woman character that’s all too rare in either film or television. “The best thing about Veronica, the thing that made the character special,” Thomas explained, “is that it’s a time period of being self-conscious, of being worried about what other people think about you or what some cute guy thinks about you. And I think other girls on television, on Buffy or on Alias, they can literally kick ass. I felt like Veronica’s super power should be that she just doesn’t give a shit. That she would be the smartest person in the world, and her day wouldn’t be ruled by what some guy thought of her outfit. So I hope that resonated.” It did, and it still does. Veronica Mars doesn’t blow open the cinematic possibilities of the Neptune universe—it looks great and moves sleekly, but it’s basically a two-hour episode of the show. And I mean that as the highest compliment. It’s smart, and funny, and totally satisfying.