Jonathan Glatzer's debut film, What Goes Up, is such a confused, convoluted, odd piece of cinema that I almost recommend seeing it just because it is so very unusual. It’s a comedy/drama/teen movie set in the days preceding the 1986 Challenger explosion. You don’t see that every Friday at the multiplex. Despite its originality and a few decent performances, you will rarely see a film more misguided in its tone changes or awkward in its transitions. Completely misunderstanding its teenage characters and reducing its journalist lead to the only sane man in an asylum, Glatzer's script even goes as far as to border on bad taste with its reduction of not only serious issues but an international tragedy to mere plot devices.
Set in 1986, Steve Coogan stars as a journalist named Campbell Babbitt, a reporter who has recently had an affair with a subject of one of his stories, a single mother who lost her son in an accidental shooting. Campbell has deified his subject with a series of articles and glossed over the fact that she committed suicide after the affair. He’s clearly in a crisis of conscious about the value and meaning of heroism. When he's sent to the New Hampshire home town of Christa McAuliffe to cover the Challenger launch (yes, the title should make your skin crawl a bit considering the backdrop of what happened to McAuliffe) he finds a much more interesting story than the exploration of space in the people there.
Campbell tries to hook up with an old friend only to discover that his school pal has just been found dead from an apparent suicide. It turns out that the friend was a revolutionary teacher, someone who inspired his teenage students to open up both emotionally and even physically. The group of teenagers includes a young lady named Lucy (Hilary Duff) who was having an affair with the teacher, a disturbed and perverted young man (Josh Peck), and the brooding tough girl Tess (Olivia Thirlby). The students seem intent on turning their former hero's best friend into an icon himself, letting him fill the empty space in their hearts and souls. Molly Shannon takes on a thankless and small role as a teacher.
From a relatively intriguing set-up, What Goes Up becomes all kinds of weird. Varying wildly from teenage drama to dark comedy, Glatzer never gets a grip on what he's trying to do. Everyone in What Goes Up could be described as irresponsible if the characters felt real enough to merit that description. Almost no one in the supporting cast feels genuine and Coogan is forced to play the straight man to all of them, allowing these weird characters to bounce off him until the inevitable tragic ending. Duff shows some intriguing maturity (although too much for her character's 17-year-old age) and Thirlby continues her streak as one of the best actresses of her generation. Thirlby is good every time she steps in front of the camera, even with a role as two-dimensional as this one. A new actress named Sarah Lind also brings a little bit of subtlety to a script without much of it.
It's not hard to see that Glatzer is going for something about heroism with What Goes Up. Whoever we put on a pedestal is bound to come down some way or another. But his over-emphasis on setting (the film sometimes plays like a very special episode of That '80s Show) and jarring, misguided tone changes consistently keep his film from reaching anything but mediocre heights.
Rating: ONE AND A HALF BONES
Release Date: May 29th, 2009
Starring: Hilary Duff, Steve Coogan, Josh Peck, Olivia Thirlby, Molly Shannon, and Sarah Lind
Director: Jonathan Glatzer
Writer: Jonathan Glatzer & Robert Lawson