Big-screen Veronica Mars more enjoyable as a reunion than a movie 

Mars Hits Neptune

Mars Hits Neptune

As a stand-alone experience, Veronica Mars the movie never quite coheres — but is it even meant to? A feature-length follow-up of Rob Thomas' cult mid-2000s TV show about a teenaged private eye uncovering foul deeds in the small but wealthy town of Neptune, Calif., the film is as much a reunion for fans as it is for its characters: a chance to bask once again in the warm glow of the show's tonal oddities and lightly soap-operatic antics. But if cinematic versions of TV shows are meant to expand universes or explore richer or darker themes — a contention that's probably up for debate nowadays — it doesn't amount to much.

Ten years after graduation, Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell, always adorable) is living in New York, has a steady boyfriend and is about to become a high-powered lawyer. (A brief montage helpfully fills in those of us playing catch-up with the original series.) Then, however, her former bad-boy beau Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring, strapping but thoroughly unmenacing) is accused of murdering his girlfriend, another classmate. He calls asking Veronica for help.

This won't be the first time she's helped Logan clear his name, and Veronica, for all her supposedly grander ambitions, hasn't quite left Neptune behind psychologically. So she comes back, and soon all her old friends are showing up for some awkwardly written banter. Meanwhile, Veronica and Logan are making eyes at one another, and old rivalries start to return. (There is, of course, also a high school reunion involved.)

Veronica Mars the movie is a nostalgia trip — more a "very special episode" than a genuinely cinematic experience — and it also provides a good case study for the stylistic differences between television and movies. As much as we like to think that the two media have become more alike than ever before, they still differ wildly when it comes to audience psychology. TV often creates and reinforces its own universe through repetition — it slowly creates its own context — whereas film often has to work on an immediate level. TV grows on you, whereas cinema gets only a brief, tenuous chance to make an impression and build a world.

Veronica Mars obviously inhabits a world that has already been built, and whose textures and tonalities will be largely familiar to its audience. Those less familiar may be put off by the awkwardly on-the-nose dialogue, or the occasionally catty back-and-forth that never quite rings true. The original show's exploration of class differences in Neptune is also muted this time out. It's paid some lip service, but we rarely see any of it; it's a critique that's largely assumed, thanks to the lingering memory of the series. Additionally, without having some sense of who these characters once were, the sight of watching who they've become doesn't have much of a kick.

What works here is the film's oddly lighthearted way of handling grim topics like murder and betrayal, even as it mulls portentously over love affairs. These characters may have grown up in terms of age, but they — and, by extension, the movie — still exist in the off-balance world of the teenager, where matters of life or death are nothing compared to matters of the heart. But in that awkwardness, Veronica Mars the movie hints at a kind of profundity. It's a movie about not being able to let go of the past, and it's a movie that itself can't let go of the past.

Email music@nashvillescene.com.

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