"What Goes Up" weighed down by flat-footed script

Thu May 21, 2009 8:02pm EDT
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By Ethan Alter

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Few things are more depressing than watching a talented ensemble of actors trying and failing to make the best of bad material.

That's the pitiable sight on display in "What Goes Up," a turgid mess of a film that has a lot of ideas on its mind, none of which prove very interesting or coherent. And yet the cast, which includes Steve Coogan, Olivia Thirlby and Molly Shannon, gives this misbegotten production their all, even when the awkward screenplay and amateurish direction stymie their efforts again and again.

The filmmakers are savvy enough to realize that recruiting a recognizable and respectable ensemble like this is a surefire way to lure moviegoers into the theater. The problem is keeping them there when they realize that the film, which opens May 29, is such a chore to sit through.

Set for no good reason against the backdrop of the tragic 1986 Challenger mission, "What Goes Up" introduces us to cynical big-city journalist Campbell Babbitt (Coogan), who is exiled by his editor to small-town New Hampshire to pen a human interest story about Christa McAuliffe, the teacher picked to be part of that fateful flight. Uninterested in actually completing this assignment, Babbitt decides to look up an old college friend turned high school teacher, only to discover that he died in an apparent suicide. In addition to all his worldly possessions, this teacher left behind a homeroom full of emotionally troubled, overly hormonal teenagers who regarded him as some kind of personal savior.

Smelling a good story, Babbitt ingratiates himself with the students but quickly finds himself in over his head when sparks fly between him and one particularly comely 17-year-old (Hilary Duff), who might have been carrying on an affair with his dead pal.

A setup like this can proceed in two ways -- an "American Pie"-style teen sex farce or a dark, morally ambiguous comedy a la "Election." But co-writer/director Jonathan Glatzer makes the mistake of attempting to fuse these tonally incompatible approaches, resulting in some bizarre juxtapositions. For example, scenes of the students wrestling with their grief rest uneasily alongside more broadly comic moments, such as when a male student is caught by his mother while having anal sex with a crippled classmate or when another kid masturbates to the sight of his next-door neighbor breast-feeding her baby. The film isn't helped by its lackluster production values, most notably a sound mix that was marred by volume-level and cross-fade glitches in the print that was shown to critics.

Because Glatzer seems unable to offer them much guidance from behind the camera, the actors are left to navigate the screenplay's inconsistencies. That they actually are able to generate moments of honest emotion and humor amid the film's many contrivances and technical problems is a testament to their commitment and professionalism. It's just a shame their Herculean efforts aren't in service of a better movie.

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<p>British actor Steve Coogan attends a news conference for U.S. director Sofia Coppola's in competition film "Marie Antoinette" at the 59th Cannes Film Festival May 24, 2006. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler</p>