Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Veronica Mars (the film)

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Veronica Mars (the film)


Welcome to my viewing diary for Veronica Mars. I will cover each TV episode (and eventually the film), several days a week, concluding with the Hulu revival. I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (premiered on March 8, 2014/written by Rob Thomas & Diane Ruggiero, story by Rob Thomas; directed by Rob Thomas): Bonnie DeVille is dead. Who? A huge pop star who attended dated Logan Echolls for years, she was once known as Carrie Bishop (Andrea Estella, replacing Leighteon Meester on the series) - the gossip girl whom Veronica once helped take down a teacher that had an affair with her friend Susan Knight (Christine Lakin). This callback to season one's "Mars vs. Mars" is one of many times that Veronica Mars the film draws deeply upon details of Veronica Mars the series. It's the best kind of fanservice, elegantly nesting callbacks, inside jokes, and familiar faces inside a tight feature thriller plot that could theoretically get by fine without them. This is, of course, very much a film for fans. They clamored for it beforehand, they funded it by setting Kickstarter records, and they likely made up the vast majority of its generally small but profitable audience. A brand new viewer could watch it without seeing the series - hell, they could even walk in late after the opening explanatory montage - and still understand the basics, but they'd miss well more than half the picture. And what are those basics?

A young lawyer is pursuing a prestigious corporate law job in New York. The interviewer Gayle Buckley (Jamie Lee Curtis) asks her about her past, as a teenage private eye from a California beach town, involving multiple cases ranging from dognapping to murder, as well as her own sex tape circulating the internet. She handles their inquiries gracefully and is offered the job; this as well as her healthy love life, recently resumed with a young man she dated in college, indicate a promising future...but her past quickly comes back to take a bite. The death of a famous musician, and the charging of her ex-boyfriend (meaning both the lawyer's and the musician's) sends her home to help the suspect - whom she hasn't seen or spoken to in nine years - pick a good defense lawyer. But she gets drawn back into her old life in numerous other ways, attending a a disaster of a tenth high school reunion, investigating curious connections of old acquaintances to the murder, helping out her father and an old friend who are both attacked, and eventually vindicating her ex (no longer just her ex after she hooks up with him and her present boyfriend dumps her) and finding the real killer. The law firm passes on her when she fails to return their calls, and she decides to stay behind and re-join her father's investigative practice, back to her old ways (which she compares to an addiction) after she came so close to fully leaving it all behind.


Of course, fans - Marshmallows as they've been called since that term was used in the pilot back in 2004 - know that this young lawyer-turned-private eye is Veronica Mars. The victim she's investigating is the aforementioned Carrie Bishop, her ex is Logan Echolls (now an Air Force officer and veteran of Afghanistan), her New York boyfriend is "Piz" Piznarski, her father is Keith Mars, and the old friend who's attacked is "Weevil" Navarro. (The killer, in perhaps the weakest element, is Stu "Cobb" Cobbler, an entirely new character played by Martin Starr, who doesn't make much of an impression). What's more, the bratty Neptune alum humiliating Veronica at the reunion is Madison Sinclair, the killer's associate whom Veronica surveills to uncover the crime is Gia Goodman, the celebrity snoop who assists her in exposing their conspiracy is Vinnie Van Lowe, the carjacked rich woman who fearfully shoots Weevil when he tries to help her is Celeste Kane, the lawyer who comes to Veronica's help when she's arrested for snooping on crazed Bonnie superfan Ruby Jetson/Della Pugh (Gaby Hoffman) is Cliff McCormack, and the San Diego cop who turns up some helpful information for Veronica - along with some light-hearted flirting - is Leo D'Amato. And, with no real relevance to the plot but an absolute need to be part of the experience, Wallace Fennel (now a high school coach), "Mac" Mackenzie (now a well-paid if ashamed Kane employee), and Dick Casablancas (still a cheerfully crude surfer dude, but now with a new medical license for pot brownies) also appear. After the reunion melts down into the playing of Veronica's sex tape, Logan and a dozen others brawling at the bar, the sprinklers soaking everyone, and Veronica finally punching Madison in the face, Principal Van Clemmons even pops up to tell Veronica it's been awfully boring since she's been gone.

So the film's primary appeal is this checking-in-on-friends aspect, but it delivers an involving mystery too. Bonnie was electrocuted in a bathtub, her first music video featured ample water imagery, and her last album was called "Confessions." Veronica realizes that Bonnie was haunted by the death of her friend Susan on a boat years ago. Gia, Dick, Cobb, and others had all been there too - mostly 09ers partying the night away - but the lower-class Cobb was their drug dealer and ultimately the blackmailer who would hang Susan's overdose, and their disposal of her body, over their heads (using the secret to procure money, sex, and favors). Obviously inspired by the Natalie Wood drowning scandal, and the rumors that have swirled around since 1981, this plot offers many key elements of the Veronica Mars mythos: celebrity, crime, class tensions. Meanwhile, Keith is nearly killed (and poor, mustachioed Deputy Sacks is even less lucky) in a cover-up of corrupt Sheriff Dan Lamb (Jerry O'Connel) - less the comic incompetent like his dead brother, more the purely venal overlord. And when Weevil is shot, the cops plant a gun in his hand, following up the scene where Keith and Veronica watch police brutalize local Hispanic youths; the already divided, oppressive community of the series has become nearly dystopian in post-recession America.

It's this as much as anything that pulls Veronica back in. She may frame her proclivity for detection as a personal flaw, an embarrassing social stigma, a self-destructive addiction, but it's also clear that she's called to justice rather than comfort. New York offers the opportunity to service an elite and pat herself on the back for escaping her troubled past; but Neptune offers something more important, and she recognizes this in her memorable closing line. "I convinced myself winning meant getting out. But in what world do you get to leave the ring and declare victory?"


My Response:
I enjoyed Veronica Mars for both its satisfying extension of the familiar and the unfamiliar ways in which it presents its material. Watching the movie less than twenty-four hours after I finished the series, I'm not sure if this makes the shock of adjusting more or less acute. It's a bit disorienting to leap forward eight years (a decade, I suppose, if we accept the film's timeline) after moving through a long unfolding story one week at a time. For most viewers of the movie, I'd imagine, the years of waiting for a follow-up, of wondering what would be next, of assuming that maybe they'd never get to see the characters again were baked into the viewing experience. But watching the season three finale and the film back-to-back made me more aware of the ruptures than the continuities. First of all, the film is forced to take some of the finale's plot developments as more emphatic (and others as less consequential) than they were probably intended at the time. Written when it wasn't entirely clear if the series was going to be cancelled, that episode establishes many ambiguous threads that could be carried on in a season four. What could have been temporary setbacks - Veronica's break-up with Logan, her humiliation at Hearst, her father's looming electoral defeat - become, as the necessary premise of the film, a complete defeat that sent her running from Neptune altogether. Meanwhile what would have probably carried on into ongoing plots - Jake Kane's return to the community, the Tower's ominous machinations, Keith's possible prosecution - are abandoned now that they distract from a more tightly-focused feature narrative.

Perhaps most fascinating to me was the film's marked difference in style. The series had a distinct aesthetic marking it as an adventurous but still integrated product of mid-zeroes network TV, a stylized teen show with ambitions to evoke noir, music video, and occasionally even the emerging proto-YouTube world of internet entertainment. It was colorful, fast-paced, bouncy with pop songs and skewed angles and dramatic close-ups. The movie is something else entirely, shouting "This is a grown-up full-on feature film!" through a muted color palette and shooting style, a more leisurely pace, and a very widescreen approach. (This last is difference presumably less marked for me than early viewers: I watched the series on DVD where it is presented in a 16:9 format rather than the 4:3 aspect ratio I'd imagine it was originally presented in.) At times, this feels a little like a straitjacket for the show's distinctive energy, flattening the delivery with the "strained seriousness" of TV playing dress-up as a movie. This can be all the more disorienting because this heightened cinematic form houses content that (aside from the conceptual hook of Veronica's return) is basically a feature-length TV episode, a large-scale but not out-of-bounds case-of-the-week delivered with much of the same arch dialogue and larger-than-life character exaggeration of the show.

If this doesn't always "work" as effectively as the series at its best, I'm still thankful the film went there for the same reason I was interested in its re-location to a college campus in season three or a temporary turn toward an episodic structure near the end of that season. If the first season of the series was the purest Veronica Mars, well, we'll always have Neptune High (and the Lilly Kane mystery). I like to see creators take chances and go in new directions, experimenting to see what quality different combinations will bring forth. There's something delightfully surreal about seeing Veronica Mars in this form, not just the cinematic presentation but the ten-year-older reunion status. When the room-to-breathe location shooting presents more grounded versions of images that became iconic on the series (Weevil riding off with his bike gang, Veronica re-entering her father's office), it's akin to a cartoon translated into live-action. And when the characters we've watched dozens of times interact with new actors, "outsiders" to this familiar world, there's an almost-Muppet Movie quality in play (especially when those new actors are celeb guest stars like James Franco, playing himself). As someone who has written volumes about the alchemy of Twin Peaks becoming Fire Walk With Me (and later The Return), how could I not appreciate this quality?!


This brings up the question of how the upcoming season will relate not just to the original series but to this movie. If there are bound to be similarities - a darkness in both form and content - there are also going to be key differences, namely a serialized mystery, punctuated with smaller arcs, spanning eight episodes rather than than a single investigation squeezed into an hour and a half. Also, although there's a lot of controversy among Marshmallows (and within fandoms generally) about the distinction between "revival" and "reboot" it's actually the film which has more of a reboot quality, starting off with Veronica far from home and spending the whole movie getting her back to her starting point. While it's a back-to-origin story rather than an origin story, the film has a certain similarity to Superman in that the movie couldn't put Superman into his cape and tights, flying around to battle evil, until an hour or so in; as Roger Ebert pointed out at the time, Superman II could get to this meat right away. Likewise the Hulu revival can go in medias res in a way that the movie, for all its reliance on fans' comfort levels with the material, couldn't quite.

But I also want to see how the new series follows up on specifically the film's developments. Veronica Mars continues the show's fascination with twenty-first century tech and (at the time half-developed) social media, updated for the era of early Instagram and tablet screens. I expect the 2019 incarnation to continue this development, and also to extend the film's forays into teens political culture (its emphasis on racialized law enforcement brutality is much more acute than the series' treatment, in a way that not only reflects current events but actually anticipates the cascade of phone-recorded police violence months before Ferguson kicked off the Black Lives Matter moment in earnest). If the narrative focus on inequality seemed prescient in 2004 - 07, a narrative focus not just on the depiction of but attempts to redress inequality may be the necessary adjustment our current era demands. I'll talk about this following the Hulu premiere on July 26, as I cover each new episode in turn, but for now I'll just note that aside from its own virtues, this film serves as an effective bridge between the two worlds of Veronica Mars: what's been and what's to come.

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