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'Veronica' a sold cinematic turn

Published: Thursday, March 13, 2014 9:28 a.m. CST
Caption
(Associated Press)
Kristen Bell in a scene from "Veronica Mars."

Canceled by the CW in 2007, the cult-fave mystery series “Veronica Mars” completed its third season with an (open-ended) episode titled “The Bitch Is Back.” Revived for the big screen, the gumshoe drama finds its title character, nine years later, insisting that she’s in a mellower frame of mind, no longer the angry, crime-solving kickass who thrills to danger. As if.

After a murder hits close to home, the law-school grad tosses aside her sleek job-interview threads and is soon sleuthing it up among the rich, famous, corrupt and depraved who populate her SoCal hometown. Kristen Bell is in fine form as the sharp-witted and stiletto-tongued Veronica, whose high polish on the art of sarcasm has endeared her to fans as a supremely self-possessed outsider.

As with the TV show, the connect-the-dots mystery solving is less interesting than the character dynamics; crimes unravel with a directness that feels aimed at younger audiences. The dark doings are leavened, and sometimes undercut, by comedy, and by angst that’s not far removed from adolescence. Creator Rob Thomas’ sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll neo-noir has a young-adult heart that still beats strong, even with Veronica and her friends well into their twenties. The 10-year reunion of Neptune High just happens to be impending when Veronica returns home to help solve a murder, and teen allegiances, animosities and romances loom large in the film, which features many actors reprising their small-screen roles.

Thomas and co-scripter Diane Ruggiero provide a concise recap of the series’ trajectory, in the form of a stylized montage with voiceover narration, that will bring even newbies up to speed on the central character. Cut to Manhattan, where the sight of Veronica in the glass-walled conference room of a prestigious Manhattan law firm, interviewing for a job, is bound to disappoint aficionados, who are used to seeing her speak truth to power, not cozy up to it.

The crime that brings her back to her fictitious beach town of Neptune, Calif., is the apparent murder of pop star Bonnie DeVille (Andrea Estella), a high school classmate and girlfriend of Veronica’s former flame Logan (Jason Dohring), himself a demi-celebrity because he’s the son of an actor. He’s suspect No. 1, and Veronica doesn’t hesitate to drop everything to help him, leaving behind a potential new job in New York and supportive boyfriend Piz (Chris Lowell). The Piz-Logan dilemma – good guy vs. bad boy, straightforward vs. complicated – is a fundamental element of the movie, in a way that starts out YA and turns believably grown-up messy.

As she digs into the case, Veronica reconnects with close friends Mac (Tina Majorino) and Wallace (Percy Daggs III), trades barbs with surfer jerk Dick (Ryan Hansen) and circumvents the dishonest, obstructionist sheriff (Jerry O’Connell). In the process she crosses paths with a wacko fan of the dead pop singer (Gaby Hoffmann) and uncovers a very cold 9-year-old case that involves a collective silence among her former classmates.

The screenplay doesn’t avoid bouts of where-are-they-now exposition as it draws connective lines between high school and adulthood. But at its strongest, as in Veronica’s relationship with her sheriff-turned-private-investigator father (Enrico Colantoni), there’s no need to spell things out. Colantoni is understated and terrific as a man who has weathered serious challenges and reversals. The father-daughter chemistry between him and Bell is an essential component of the movie, as of the series – loaded with emotion but never lapsing into sentimentality.

A dark thread runs through the movie. Veronica makes repeated references to her absent alcoholic mother and to addiction in general. It’s a thread that doesn’t feel fully integrated into the film, but suggests material that Thomas might explore if he decides to make a second Veronica Mars feature.

“Veronica Mars,” a Warner Bros. release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “sexuality including references, drug content, violence and some strong language.” Running time: 107 minutes.

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MPAA rating definition for PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

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