If TV’s So Great, Why Are So Many TV Stars Making Movies?

03/14/2014 12:26 PM |

veronica mars movie kristen bell

The sever-crashing mania for HBO’s True Detective, starring recent Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey, probably serves as one more notch in the belt for the TV-is-the-new-movies crowd. But despite the number of talented actors and stars that HBO, Showtime, FX, and even major networks have been able to attract, making a movie still holds some obvious appeal, however diminished. For Veronica Mars, appearing on movie screens this weekend, just short of seven years after the TV show of the same name ended appropriately but abruptly, a big-screen revival represents two distinct but intertwined thrills: a chance for two more hours with characters a small-but-passionate segment of TV-watchers have been desperate to revisit; and a chance for that limited time (about the length of three TV episodes, minus credits) to unspool on a giant screen, in the dark, with a low budget that is nonetheless many times more than any given three episodes of the TV series.

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As a confirmed, Kickstarting V-Mars fan, I’m excited and a little scared about the film. The show developed such a rich ensemble that many episodes didn’t have enough Wallace or Mac or Keith Mars for my tastes; imagine the crumbs (and potential Logan overload!) a mere two-hour movie might afford. On the other hand, the show’s facility with stand-alone mysteries, long overshadowed by the serialized storytelling that supposedly makes TV so great, was often underrated, so making the Big Mystery also the Stand-Alone Mystery is a tantalizing prospect. I’ve always thought of the show as Nancy Drew noir, which sounds like an equally great premise for a feature film.

Arrested Development, like Mars, was a mid-aughts show caught between the transition from mass-appeal network dominance to niche-driven quality; it, too, got three abbreviated seasons followed by a long-rumored resurrection—fueled, I think, in part by the sense that had either show premiered just a few years later, it would have been able to parlay its critical acclaim and cult audience into a longer run. I mean, Parks and Recreation and Community are about to finish their sixth and fifth seasons, respectively, with a seventh and sixth looking pretty likely. Arrested also propelled star Jason Bateman back into the spotlight; between the show’s first finale and its Netflix revival, Bateman wound up nursing a major movie career. His feature directing debut, Bad Words, comes out this weekend in limited release.

In his lucrative studio-comedy career, Bateman often gets stuck doing warmed-over Michael Bluth: a deadpan straight-arrow, only without the barbs or his own secret neuroses. So it’s a relief to see Bateman go full antihero for Bad Words, in which he plays Guy Trilby, a disgruntled, foulmouthed 40-year-old who exploits a loophole allowing him to compete in a spelling bee (he never graduated eighth grade, and there are no other provisions barring 40-year-olds from attempting to compete). Trilby commits a wide variety of offenses in the movie, but in between acts of aggression toward his pint-sized competitors and their scandalized parents, he mostly wants to be left alone. Beyond the harried reporter (Kathryn Hahn) bankrolling his trip and trying to form a story around his misbehavior, Guy is trailed by Chaitanya (Rohan Chand), a grinning little 10-year-old and fellow speller who wants to make friends. Guy can’t shoo him away, so he lets the kid stick around while he says a bunch of mean stuff.

Bateman’s usual comic arsenal—deadpan voice, half-whispered condescension, dry winks—bring a lot to the inappropriate-comment shtick. Bad Words isn’t all that funny, but Bateman’s underplaying both ups the zing factor of his middling insult lines and also teases out the “adult hurt feelings,” as he phrased it in his Museum of the Moving Image Q&A on Tuesday night, beneath Guy’s nasty exterior. Even with room for a better, more layered performance, though, some of the same script problems that plague Bateman’s studio comedies nag at this movie, too. Andrew Dodge’s screenplay is purportedly edgier and more real than the likes of, say, Identity Thief or Horrible Bosses, but its faux-outrageous lines aren’t the instant comedy gold the movie imagines they are, and kid character Dodge speaks mostly in screenwriterese; beyond his banter-y rejoinders, even his most cutely naive lines sound written and polished. The script also shuffles Hahn (like Bateman, a sometimes-underused comedic gem) on and offstage as needed on its way to a series of mostly predictable, if semisatisfying, conclusions.

As a director, Bateman indulges in a few too many close-ups, but brings some visual distinction to the able. He shoots Bad Words in sickly browns and yellows; most of the movie is the color of worn classroom linoleum, an appropriate choice for a story about regression and shattered elementary-school dreams. Bateman obviously cares about this material and making it work on its own terms (because “who needs to see another goddamn spelling bee movie?” he asked rhetorically at the MoMI event), which is probably why the movie isn’t quite as smug or reductive as it should be. Bateman has said he plans to continue directing regularly and starring in his films; he may yet find a comic vehicle worthy of his brilliance on Arrested Development.

Aaron Paul, the unexpected breakout from Breaking Bad, has also been rewarded with a shot at a movie career for playing an indelible TV character. Back when Veronica Mars was on the air, Paul guested on that show as an early version of sympathetic burnout Jesse Pinkman; even post-Pinkman, it’s a little surreal to see him top-lining a mainstream action programmer likeNeed for Speed. It looks like a simple Fast and Furious knockoff, but Paul must have some star cachet for him to be such a clear subject of the film’s striking blue-and-orange posters. Paul, Bateman and Kristen Bell might all make sense on television (Bell has tipped her toe back in those waters, voicing Gossip Girl and doing an arc on Heroes after Veronica solved her final case), but maybe the migration of prominent actors to smaller screens doesn’t mean much more than their attempts to jump into multiplexes. Maybe good material is hard to find anywhere you look.