What Goes Up Movie Review

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What a baffling film this is, as if coming to us from an alternate movie universe where Olivia Thirlby got pregnant instead of Ellen Page and never hooked up with Josh Peck in The Wackness, Steve Coogan found his calling as a serious actor, and Hilary Duff routinely appeared in the kind of indie-cred roles we always assumed Lindsay Lohan would start doing.

Let me explain, if I can. In What Goes Up, Coogan plays Campbell Babbitt, a New York reporter in 1986 unable to get over his most prized subject, a heroic woman from Harlem working through the death of her son. It doesn't help that said subject killed herself, and for some reason no one else knows; I guess this makes Babbitt feel like a fraud, but it should probably make him feel like everyone around him is an idiot.

To break him out of his funk, Babbitt is sent to New Hampshire to cover a local teacher's journey on the about-to-launch Challenger. There he looks up another local teacher, an old college buddy who, it turns out, has just died. Babbitt senses a story, and begins to spend time with the loose-knit group of high-school outsiders that his friend taught. All the while, the Challenger launch looms in the background, functioning more as an elaborate bit of misdirection than a thematic grace note.

Babbitt supposedly grows closer to these students as they see him as a surrogate for their departed role model, but there's more talk about this development than illustration of it; I'm not sure I saw a single instance of Coogan replacing or even attempting to replace his friend.

Maybe Babbitt just can't get enough of a bead on who any of these kids are; if so, I feel his pain. Cowriter-director Jonathan Glatzer gives us about a dozen teenage characters and never wrangles them into a coherent group. According to the credits and, to a lesser degree, the screenplay, the most important ones are Lucy (Duff), a ringleader of sorts; Tess (Thirlby), who seems to be some kind of super-outsider, lurking on the periphery of the peripherals; and Jim (Josh Peck), slack-jawed with a bad teenage mustache, who is nursing a crush on Lucy, I think, or maybe it was Tess. He also saves a baby from choking after spying on the kid's topless mother. Uh huh.

Glatzer's understanding of alienated kids focuses on strange behavior rather than recognizable empathy. The supporting characters feel as if they've been recalibrated toward weird dimness in order to make Duff seem off-kilter and mysterious, and it sort of works: Her lost little girl quality comes across as self-aware and slightly touching, as it does in War, Inc., rather than a product of an ill-prepared actress, as it does in most of her other movies. But Duff can't take hold of the material, nor can the talented Thirlby, nor can any of the wispy subplots wafting through the narrative. There's a vaguely sweet little detour, for example, about the budding sexual relationship between paraplegic Peggy (Sarah Lind) and the goofy Fenster (Max Hoffman), but it must've received legal emancipation from the rest of the movie as, soon enough, it's never heard from again.

It's not just subplots that get lost. Though What Goes Up has simple, low-budget locations, it displays almost no sense of simple spatial relationships. Glatzer cuts so ineptly between mannered compositions that the film, at times, scatters itself to the wind. In one sequence, it's shockingly difficult to tell whether several characters are in the same room or not; in another, a cut seems to signal the passage of about 90 minutes of time for Coogan but just about 10 for the teenagers, simultaneously.

Other basic mechanics elude the filmmakers: how journalism works in terms of whether the subject of several newspaper stories can remain dead for weeks or possibly months on end without anyone noticing, and whether said reporting could quickly garner a Pulitzer Prize, still without anyone noticing said death; how teenage outcasts work in the context of the actual world, not just a poorly constructed and ill-defined yet weirdly supportive peer group; or even how televisions work -- in the most literal sense that if a TV is showing snow and static, it's probably not because it's halfway unplugged.

So it goes as this mess of a movie until complete separation from genuine, understandable human behavior is achieved. Coogan can't help but put a dry, witty spin on a few of his lines, but he also has to deal with a staggering, embarrassing amount of dime-store philosophizing as the movie spills toward conclusion. I guess the filmmakers are ruminating on heroism, cynicism, or grief. Watch What Goes Up and you'll do your share of guessing, too.

Something went down.

Cast & Crew

Director : Jonathan Glatzer

Producer : RD Robb, Jonathan Glatzer, Jack Nasser

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What Goes Up Rating

" Terrible "

Rating: R, 2009

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