‘Mars’ movie still has small-screen feel

Acting is sensationalized, but TV series fans won’t be disappointed

McClatchy-Tribune News ServiceMarch 14, 2014 

Kristen Bell plays the title character in “Veronica Mars,” which was a TV series from 2004-07.

WARNER BROS. PICTURES

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 for fans only. Almost, though.

A generic murder mystery with the private eye narrating the investigation in voiceover, this class reunion dramedy chugs along on the good will the cast built up over the show’s 2004-07 run. Co-writer and director Rob Thomas tailored this to run on the familiar set-up and 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 her high school classmate 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 filmgoer is constantly reminded that this was a network TV show, after all, as most of the players are network TV bland, emoting only from the neck up. And even at that, it takes a while 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 overfamiliarity, 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.

VERONICA MARS

H H H 1/2 I

Cast: Kristen Bell, Jason Dohring, Enrico Colantoni, Krysten Ritter, Jerry O’Connell

Director: Rob Thomas

Running time: 1:47

Rated: PG-13; sexuality including references, drug content, violence and some strong language

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