March 13, 2014

‘Veronica Mars’ is still tailor-made for the small screen

Fan-demanded and fan-financed, “Veronica Mars” represents some sort of new movie-making paradigm. If you love something so much that you’d “pay to see that,” you can now turn that dream project into a big-screen reality by ponying up a piece of the production financing yourself.

From a fan’s standpoint, that’s kind of cool. This movie caters to them.

But as another in the rich tradition of private detective thrillers, the big-screen “Veronica” isn’t just for fans only. Almost, though.

A generic murder mystery with the private eye narrating the investigation in voice-over, this class reunion dramedy chugs along on the good will the cast built up over the show’s 2004-2007 run. Co-writer/director Rob Thomas tailored this to run on the familiar set-up/joke rhythms of a TV sitcom, custom fit for the vulnerable, hesitant sass of Kristen Bell, his star.

It’s self-conscious to a fault. It plays as melodramatic and a little dated. And when it comes to laughs, it tries too hard, like a 30-year-old straining to get her senior-year skinny jeans to fit.

As Veronica, fresh out of law school, living in New York and about to marry Piz (Chris Lowell), says, “Old habits die hard.”

So when her one-time nemesis-turned-lover Logan (Jason Dohring), now in the Navy, is accused of killing his pop-star girlfriend, Veronica answers the call. She’ll fly cross-country to Neptune Beach, where the dead pop star also was a classmate back in high school a decade ago. Veronica is sniffing around this case that she promises her dad (Enrico Colantoni) she won’t get caught up in just as her dreaded 10-year reunion is happening.

The underpinnings of the TV show are exposed in a compact opening montage and assorted snarky or sweet “You haven’t changed a bit” reunion moments. Early scenes are heavy on the incessant Veronica-narration and exposition, references to incidents and accidents from years ago, from a sex tape to a drowning death.

But the film-goer is constantly reminded that this was a TV show, after all, as most of the players are TV bland – emoting only from the neck up. And even at that, it takes awhile for them to get their feet back under themselves as they fall back into this world and the roles they played in it.

Halfway in, however, something clicks and the magic that fans fell in love with splashes up on even the casual Veronica viewer. The one-liners land and the pop culture references pile up. Cracks about “The Accused” and “Yahtzee!” pepper the picture –in between TMZ riffs and cameos by the likes of James Franco, Justin Long, Ira Glass and Dax Shepard (Bell’s husband).

As school principal Mr. C. (Duane Daniels) notes, the time since Veronica left has been “10 years of peace and quiet.”

Yeah, she shrugs. “If you like that sort of thing.”

Which goes for “Veronica Mars,” the movie, too. For all its fun flourishes and tepid familiarity, fans are going to dig this. It is, after all, the movie they paid for. They’re the folks who “like this sort of thing.” The rest of us can be forgiven for waiting for it to show up on Netflix so we can watch it on TV.

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