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Small town. Big problems. Major misfits.
"What goes up must come down."
That's the worn-out old saying evoked by the title of What Goes Up, and it seems unintentionally appropriate in this particular case. Here is a film that grabs every element it can get its hands on, flings these elements wildly into the air, and then lets them all come crashing down in an orgy of unceremonious chaos. What a truly horrible film this is. No, it isn't the traditional sort of "bad film" that never actually had a shot at being good in the first place. What Goes Up is the sort of film that begins as an ambitious motion picture with a lot of promising elements before failing to deliver on every single one of them.
Our lead character is a reporter named Campbell Babbit (Steve Coogan, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story), who has recently earned a great deal of critical acclaim for a series of stories about a grieving single mother named Amanda. His editor (Molly Price, Bionic Woman) is getting a bit tired of reading the somewhat repetitive Amanda stories, and decides to send Campbell down to New Hampshire to cover the excitement surrounding the forthcoming launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger (the film is set in the early days of 1986). Specifically, Campbell is supposed to cover the ceremonies at the local school where NASA Teacher in Space Project winner Christa McAuliffe is from.
When Campbell arrives, he discovers that a particular group of students have something else on their minds. A teacher affectionately known as "Mr. C" has passed away. There is much talk buzzing around regarding the circumstances of his death. Apparently Mr. C committed suicide by jumping off a bridge. He was the teacher of a group of misfit students at the school. The kids were individuals the school system just didn't know how to deal with; they were horny and awkward and just plain weird. You know, normal teenagers. Mr. C took these students under his wing and gave them the opportunity to truly be themselves. His methods of doing this were somewhat controversial, but he was much beloved nonetheless. Campbell decides to focus his time and attention on this particular story instead of his primary assignment. Slowly but surely, he finds himself being sucked into the strange new world of these teens. Can he fill the void left by the death of Mr. C?
By the time the film gets around to answering that question, odds are reasonably high that you simply won't care. This film attempts to bite off far more than it can chew, and the result is a movie that feels like it has no idea what it wants to be. There are so many tonal inconsistencies here that it truly boggles the mind. At times, the movie wants to be a mean-spirited satire taking a jab at all the corn-pone idiots that live in this New Hampshire town (including the misfit kids). At other times, it wants to be a sensitive and moving drama about a cynical reporter who finds himself again when dealing with these hurting young teens. The music in the film accentuates this lack of identity, veering from swelling strings to indie cool to quirky "ooh-ahh" Danny Elfman vocals that attempt to demonstrate just how wacky everything is.
The one thing the music never sounds like is material from the 1980s, the era in which this film is allegedly set. There is little to no effort made here to make this film feel like it is set in 1986. Sure, the obligatory older-model car turns up now and then, but that's about it. The hair, the clothing, the dialogue, the music, the set design…everything else about this films feels very 2009. That doesn't stop the film from trying to force in '80s-themed social issues, though. What Goes Up makes an attempt to draw intricate parallels between the doomed Challenger mission, Reagan's presidency, Romeo and Juliet and the plot of this film. Oh, boy.
This should-be-awe-inspiring attempt at complicated symbolism ultimately devolves into a gosh-darned clusterhump, leading to lots of symbolically loaded but logically empty-headed moments. Consider the scene in which Coogan and Hillary Duff (very miscast in a blatant attempt to shed her Disney Channel image) turn a scene from Romeo and Juliet into a creepy underage sex proposal, or the moment in which a teenage boy pleasures himself which watching a mother breastfeeding her baby before attempting to save the baby from choking to death after the mother leaves the room. Because see, while the Challenger is seemingly a good thing that is about to turn into a horrific thing that kills people, this situation is a horrific thing that is about to turn into a good thing that saves a child, and then Reagan is on the television talking about…oh, boy. Suffice it to say the whole film is about as successful as the Space Shuttle Challenger mission it attempts to mirror.
At least the transfer looks stellar here. If nothing else, the film does a nice job of capturing the wintry, damp New Hampshire setting. Flesh tones are warm and accurate, blacks are reasonably deep, and the level of detail is satisfactory. Audio is somewhat less impressive, with Coogan's mumblings occasionally being a little difficult to understand and the music drowning out the dialogue from time to time. No extras are included on the disc.
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