SXSW 2014 Review: No Need To Get Your Ass to ‘Veronica Mars’

By  · Published on March 9th, 2014

Veronica Mars is apparently a very satisfying return of some clearly beloved characters from a TV series that went off the air seven years ago. Fans will love it. In fact, fans do love it, as I witnessed at the packed premiere in the 1100-seat Paramount Theater at SXSW. There’s nothing wrong with a movie catering to fans of a property, and there’s no reason to assume something serving as a continuation of a pre-existing entertainment product should work for those attempting to jump in blind. This certainly isn’t the first feature spun-off from a TV show that expects you to have at least some familiarity, nor is it unlike many sequels throughout the history of film, nor is it unlike a ton of made-for-TV movies offering a reunion of characters (and of cast members that play them) and, more importantly, of reunion of fans with those characters they’ve missed.

Veronica Mars, however, is not for me and the majority of people who’ve never seen one episode of the show. Why did I go into something like this without catching up? I was curious to see if it would be worthwhile for others in my shoes. And now I can say that it is not. Maybe that’s all I need to say, but I’d like to offer more, because I believe that fans deserve better than what they get here, regardless of all the direct service they receive in the form of recall references that only exist to make someone feel special for having a memory and some dedication. Am I bitter for not getting the inside jokes that had most of the theater laughing at seemingly random bits of dialogue? No, I was just bored for that reason. But I also feel bad for the fans that the movie’s humor is so based in what’s already in their heads rather than in anything new and unique.

The plot of this extended episode, set nine years after the events of the final season, has the title character (Kristen Bell) about to start work as a New York City lawyer when she’s beckoned back to her hometown of Neptune, California, because an old classmate has been murdered and her ex (Jason Dohring) is the prime suspect. As it turns out, Veronica’s 10-year high school reunion, which she’s set on avoiding, is the same weekend she goes back to help the guy with some legal advice, and eventually she falls right back into her old sleuthing habit and finds herself having to attend that assemblage of revisited supporting cast, plus a few new guest stars (including a waste of Gaby Hoffman’s talents) and cameos, because those people may be tied to the case. If it sounds like Veronica Mars is recycling the plot of Grosse Pointe Blank to anyone, it is pretty close. Just add in the storyline of the first live-action Scooby-Doo movie and you’ve got an even better frame of precedent.

At least Scooby-Doo made an effort to be cinematically appealing and appropriate and something different (even if still unsatisfactorily). Veronica Mars is scripted like a TV show, shot like a TV show and acted as if it’s a TV show and does nothing at all to justify a theatrical release. Fans at the Paramount may have benefited in their experience for attending that particular screening, and so you can’t trust their reaction. In a way, it was like they were at a live taping of a sitcom, providing a collective laugh track and applauding every returning character/actor upon their first appearance on screen. They thought it was a hoot to see Mars, within a few minutes of the movie, giving someone the not-allowed-on-network-television middle finger. Later, she even says “fuck” with such emphasis to remind us that the leap to this other medium allowed for it. But that hardly necessitates your paying for the price of a movie ticket.

Nor for the price of a day-and-date VOD or iTunes rental, even. Never mind the fact that Veronica Mars looks terrible on the big screen; on the small screen it’s still no more than a double-size version of the TV show and shouldn’t cost a dime more than the usual charge for two episodes, if even that. As for those who paid way in advance for their digital stream as a co-funder via Kickstarter, who also get a t-shirt and copy of the screenplay for their $35 contribution, they can argue that this money paid not just for the viewing of the movie but for the movie being able to exist for that viewing to happen, but it seems to me that this movie should therefore be something that had to happen, that its existence should be justified as more than a reunion special.

There have been photo spreads in Entertainment Weekly of old TV casts brought back together that have provided as much satisfaction, for a whole lot less money. And there have been despicably principled cash-grab movie sequels with a whole lot more entertainment value. I know that the movie is enough to quench the thirst of the fans, because I heard them express as much. But I don’t understand how, and I don’t expect it to do so for a lot of the less diehard fans who didn’t make it to the star-studded premiere and who didn’t contribute to its crowdfund campaign. I know for certain there is absolutely no reason for someone who didn’t like (or watch) the Veronica Mars TV series to see the movie at all, but even those who did enjoy the show are fine – probably even best off – waiting until the Veronica Mars movie airs for free on broadcast television.

The Upside: It seems to be on par with the TV series and meets its fans approval.

The Downside: It costs those fans a lot more than the TV series did and doesn’t do anything in adapting to the different medium to be of value for that cost.

On the Side: Creator/writer/director Rob Thomas also co-created the show Party Down, which has also been in talks for a feature film spin-off.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.