According to lore, Liberace used to greet the tourists who’d come by bus to gawk at his bejeweled home with the line, “I hope you like it. After all, you paid for it!” Not everyone has to like Rob Thomas’s Veronica Mars, the feature-length incarnation of his much-loved television series, which ran from 2004 to 2007. But the fans who helped finance the movie, via a ferociously successful 2013 Kickstarter campaign, have every reason to like it: It’s been crafted affectionately for them, bringing back nearly every original cast member — chief among them Kristen Bell and Enrico Colantoni — and, instead of lifting the characters out of amber and trying to jolt their stories back to life, treating them like actual human beings who have gone on living while we weren’t looking. For people who loved the show, as I did, it’s like fan fiction without the delusional megalomania. We don’t have to keep writing these characters’ stories for ourselves; Thomas has done it for us — and, trust me, he’s better at it.
When we last saw Bell’s Veronica Mars, she was still a teenage detective in the small, moneyed Southern California town of Neptune. Now she’s a bona fide adult just out of law school and eager to start a new career in New York. Ten years out of high school, she has no intention of going back for the planned reunion, even though it would give her a chance to visit her father, Keith Mars (Colantoni). Keith, a onetime Neptune sheriff, raised Veronica largely by himself: Her mother, a troubled woman with a drinking problem, skipped out on the family after Keith was run off the job for being principled. At that point, Veronica, who used to be part of the town’s in crowd, was demoted to loser status, but that demotion also led her to develop surprisingly sophisticated investigative skills — on the series, she put those to use in solving the murder of her best friend, making her father proud.
Veronica wants nothing to do with Neptune now. She’s living with the sweet-natured but (still) clearly not-right-for-her Stosh “Piz” Piznowski (Chris Lowell), who has been in love with her since the two were teenagers. And she’s seemingly forgotten her volatile and complex on-again, off-again ex-boyfriend, Logan (Jason Dohring). The key word is “seemingly”: When Veronica learns that Logan is a suspect in the death of his rock-star girlfriend (she’s been electrocuted in the bathtub), she senses something isn’t right and books a plane ticket home.
The elaborate plotting isn’t the film’s strongest feature. I suspect that anyone unfamiliar with the show might get tangled up in the threads that Thomas and his co-writer, Diane Ruggiero, spin out. But as with all great TV shows, on Veronica Mars, the really interesting things were all happening in the margins, and here, Thomas, Ruggiero, and the cast make the most of every available corner. Logan is now in the military, a pretty wild choice for a spoiled rich kid. But, thank God, Thomas understands the distinction between what’s believable and what’s realistic. In movie terms, Logan’s choice is wholly believable, especially when we see him in uniform. He meets Veronica at the airport in his dress whites, and though she can’t resist making an Officer and a Gentleman wisecrack (who could?), he’s so tall and solemn and quietly lovestruck that we can see her going weak at the knees. She blurts out what we’re thinking: “You should only ever wear that, like, ever.”
On the show, Logan was the sort of character who was hateful at the beginning and irresistibly beguiling by the end. Dohring still has that boyish, vaguely bratty look, though now it’s laced with gravity. But it’s the reunion between Colantoni and Bell that proves the movie’s most gratifying element. The Keith–Veronica dynamic was one of the great father-daughter relationships of modern storytelling, a sturdy meshwork of mutual protectiveness, respect, and affection. Bell and Colantoni easily pick up where they left off in 2007. Bell has always been a sly, sparkling presence, though she hasn’t had the movie career she deserves, at least until recently. (She’s the voice of Anna in the Disney hit Frozen.)
Seven years after the demise of the show, Bell is more grown-up and definitely curvier — she’s like a real person, only better looking — and her timing is more playful and precise than ever. Colantoni, who may be best remembered by movie audiences as Thermian leader Mathesar in the superb sci-fi spoof Galaxy Quest, is an extraordinarily subtle actor, which may be why he made such a good TV dad for Veronica. His bald pate gave his eyebrows lots of room to roam, and they needed it, considering the trouble she kept getting herself into. But he was always as amused by his daughter as he was frustrated by her sometimes misguided independence, and he was never overbearing or sentimental in his love for her. The nuances of their relationship carry over into this new iteration of Veronica Mars. If you’ve never seen the show, it’s a great excuse for binge-watching. And if you loved the show, the movie is a welcome homecoming. It has the feeling of a story that has been, against all odds, loved into existence. Probably because that’s exactly what it is.