Is there a difference between a movie and a TV show anymore? When A-list actors appear in limited-edition cable series and when episodic TV has morphed into one long, binge-worthy narrative slipstream, it’s safe to say the lines between the two mediums have profoundly blurred.
On the other hand, there’s “Veronica Mars.” They’re calling it a movie, but no matter how you squint at it it’s a TV show.
This is very good news for the “Marshmallows” — fans of the “Veronica Mars” series that ran from 2004 to 2007 on UPN and its successor network, the CW, before getting canned between seasons. In practical terms, it’s irrelevant to everyone else. The news that the show’s creator, Rob Thomas, and star, Kristen Bell, had launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund a big-screen return of the plucky girl detective has been treated as a pop-culture second coming in some quarters. On the evidence of the movie, which is being released only at AMC theaters and on demand, it’s not. But it is a pretty good made-for-TV reunion special.
If you’ve never seen the show, a pleasurable mix of dramatic suspense and snarky comedy, you can probably quit reading now. For those who’ve already signed up: It’s seven years after the events of the final season, and Veronica (Bell) has fled the sleepy, corrupt town of Neptune, Calif., to go to law school and settle in with boyfriend “Piz” Piznarski (Chris Lowell, likeable and low-key). Just as she’s on the verge of becoming a corporate shark, events yank her back: Swoony ex-boyfriend Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring) is accused of murdering his rock-star girlfriend, Bonnie Deville, a.k.a Veronica’s classmate Carrie Bishop (Andrea Estella).
Bell played a grown woman trying to step back into her younger self in last year’s “The Lifeguard,” and that didn’t go so well. “Veronica Mars” is a plottier, PG-13 version. The storyline includes a 10th high school reunion, and for devotees of the show the movie functions as same. Here’s Veronica’s mellow P.I. father Keith (Enrico Colantoni), best friend Wallace (Jason Daggs III), hacker pal Mac (Tina Majorino). Here are the kids who tormented her and befriended her in the hallways: Gia (Krysten Ritter), Dick (Ryan Hansen), Madison (Amanda Noret), Cobb (Martin Starr). Different hairlines, broader paunches, same drama.
Same chatty voiceover narration from Bell’s Veronica, too -- another sign we’re still in TVLand. “Veronica Mars” throws in a second murder mystery and a spreading corruption scandal; and there are a few drive-by cameos by celebrity gawkers: James Franco as himself, Justin Long and Dax Shepard (a.k.a. Mr. Kristen Bell) as sleazeballs at a bar, Jamie Lee Curtis as a law firm headhunter. But the film never widens its scope, visually or thematically, beyond the confines of serial drama, and it never even tries to convince the unconverted why they should care. If anything, the original show was ahead of the curve in calling attention to frat-boy sexism and rape culture; but aside from a few clicks of Veronica’s trusty Taser, “Veronica Mars” never takes advantage of the big screen’s broader parameters. Only Gaby Hoffman, playing a rock-star stalker with her patented confrontational weirdness, is a blast of the unexpected.
But unexpected isn’t part of the game plan when filmmakers are catering to a core audience of Marshmallows who have, after all, been waiting seven years and who have paid for the thing. When all is said and done, “Veronica Mars” is proof that you can go home again — if you’re willing to pony up on Kickstarter.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.