A movie about a journalist who questions the honesty and sincerity of his profession, especially himself, What Goes Up may also be considering inadvertently the questionable moral fiber in moviemaking too. If so, What Goes Up, in its feverish and unfocused search for a seemingly vague ideal of raw truth, crash lands instead, and with minimal dramatic impact.
Writer/director Jonathan Glatzer frames What Goes Up as two parallel stories that don’t quite gel. It’s the mid-1980s during the Reagan era, as the country is poised for the ill-fated takeoff of the Challenger Space Shuttle, with Concord, New Hampshire teacher and the first civilian astronaut Christa McAuliffe, on board.
Meanwhile, back in New York City, jaded journalist Campbell Babbitt (Steve Coogan) has fallen out of favor with his tyrannical editor. Who declares in no subtle terms, that ‘you smell and you’re writing is baroque,’ as she banishes him to Concord to write a story about their suddenly famous space cadet hometown girl.
Babbitt is at the same time harboring more personal concerns, including a chronic guilt trip about having a secret affair with one of his interview subjects for an article, followed by her suicide. And in a bid to alleviate his current self-loathing, Babbitt has embellished his series of stories about the woman with what may be more diplomaitcally termed, unabashed hyperbole.
When Babbitt reluctantly arrives for his assignment in the dreary boondocks, he tries to locate an old college friend who has also just committed suicide. And Babbitt discovers that his recently departed chum happened to be known locally as ‘our almost priest,’ and was a favorite teacher if not scandalous guru to a gang of bratty, raging hormone challenged alienated teens.
Among them is Lucy (Hilary Duff), a tempermental student who may have been having a romance with the teacher; Tess (Olivia Thirlby), a brooding girl who has been possibly just knocked up by her lascivious uncle and is in need of an abortion; and Jim (Josh Pack), a somewhat disturbed boy who is inclined to grave robbing, and climbs trees to engage in impulsive auto-erotic voyeurism targeting breastfeeding moms. There’s also Penelope (Molly Shannon), a frazzled lonely teacher who may likewise have had an affair with the departed almost priest, and sets her sights on a horrified Babbitt as an automatic romantic replacement.
If this sounds like a movie overstuffed with plot threads that never quite come together, it’s more than true. And by the way, in this midst of this deluge of teen angst, Babbitt also grabs a Pulitzer for his aforementioned tainted series, restoring his relationship with that contemptuous editor just before the Challenger crashes somewhere in the movie as a lost and found narrative sidebar.
Hilary Duff and the other young actors should not be faulted here for the lame adults around them, both in the movie and behind the cameras. They excel at projecting the confusion and anguish of students in crisis, and all of them deserve an A. The filmmakers are another matter.
Three Kings Production