I don’t know whether the new Veronica Mars film passes the acid test cineastes give for “theatrical film.” I do know that it was a pleasure to sit in a multiplex theater and hear an audience laugh repeatedly at snappy, clever dialogue exchanged among human beings as opposed to, say, digitally animated rodents. I have nothing whatsoever against animated rodents. But why should they get smarter things to say in movies than action heroes and the sidekicks who love them?
Anyway…Watching Veronica Mars’ Chandler-esque comedy of manners on a big screen sort of made me feel as though I were back in college when I went to the UConn Film Society’s weekend screenings of vintage screwball comedies and noir whodunits. It’s one thing to laugh at smart banter when it’s just you and a few others in a den or rec room staring at an appliance. It’s somehow more gratifying to hear your delight with brainy bon mots validated in a dark room filled with strangers. I’d almost forgotten what it was like to go to a Hollywood studio movie that delivered a slam-bang narrative drive without an accompanying discharge of exhaust, metal shavings and concussive noise.
To put all this in another way: Veronica Mars has all the modest graces and arcane charms of what we used to know and love as B-movies, whose once-secure niche was long ago ceded mostly to series television by the entertainment-industrial complex. Maybe it was inevitable and just a wee bit ironic that a big-screen revival of a prematurely cancelled TV series would evoke such lost qualities. But we’re also in this upended age where cultural arbiters are wondering whether TV series are better than feature films – and as far as most influential pundits are concerned, there is no longer a “whether.” So why shouldn’t Veronica Mars herald a return of the termite-crafty B-movie?
Much of the movie’s craftiness comes in its up-to-the-minute and (thus) close-to-the-bone depiction of all-American class conflict. The original series managed to nail down the slimier aspects of SoCal social snobbery within a YA-novel-worthy context of a button-cute teen smarty pants who fell hard from her school’s in-crowd due to a scandal that unjustly disgraced and ostracized her dad from the town sheriff’s badge to a private-investigator’s license. It’s an educated guess that many who were passionately devoted to the show – and contributed much of the funds needed to make the movie happen – identified with the marginalized status dropped upon both Veronica (Kristen Bell) and her dad Keith (Enrico Colantoni); likely believed that pulling the plug on the show after just three seasons was another personal affront from the alleged “cool kids” who ran the networks.
The movie doesn’t just retrieve its source material’s antagonism towards predatory elites, but ramps up the edginess with outrage, even (on Veronica’s face) horror upon seeing her hometown police department’s storm-trooper tactics against what appear to be minority members of an ethnic motorcycle gang. Keith’s willingness to capture this extreme-stop-and-frisk ritual on his phone camera is the kind of offhand heroism one sees in a big-screen movie about as rarely as post-Millennial police brutality is depicted in a Hollywood feature.
What’s even rarer – and in many ways, even more of a throwback to classic Hollywood days – is a movie that places in its center an ingenious, funny woman who’s neither a helpless victim nor a dour paragon (looking at you, Divergent and Hunger Games). If the Veronica Mars movie does nothing else but show America how good Kristen Bell can be when she’s given something worthwhile to say and do in front of a camera, then it will have achieved a minor miracle. On the TV show, Bell showed the kind of grit, sass, avidity and timing reminiscent of thirties screwball comediennes such as Jean Arthur, Carole Lombard and Irene Dunne. (Look at that jawline. Tell me you don’t think Dunne could have been her great-grandma.) But in just about every major motion picture she’s been in since her show discontinued in 2007, Bell seems to barely exist on screen, with the possible, if dubious exception of 2008’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall. And the only other movie she’s been in that was as successful as that was last year’s Frozen – and she was providing voice for…a digitally animated person. In Veronica the movie, she’s magnetic and feisty once again, not letting anyone shove her around, or aside. And how we missed her facility with comebacks! Where were all the writers and directors who could have brought that out? I don’t expect answers to that question any time soon.
After a week in limited release, Veronica Mars has made back roughly $2 million of its $6 million budget. It’s still too early to declare the fan-funded initiative a success or failure, given that Warner Bros still seems stingy towards its distribution. As was the case a week ago, I can count on one hand – and two fingers – the places in the DC metropolitan area that now have a Mars sign on their marquees. The studio is still offering the movie to its fans through downloads, though there have apparently been glitches in the transactions. In whatever form the movie is handed out, I’m rooting for it to succeed over the bombast and white noise of generic multiplex distractions. I’m not (necessarily) expecting Veronica Mars to make moviegoers more civilized in their expectations; nor do I anticipate that it will revive film noir or screwball wisecracks on the big screen. I’m just another fan – a “Martian”, please, not a “marshmallow” –hoping to see the cool kids proven wrong again.