When you're in a position to view an enormous amount of cinema, there are strengths and weaknesses easily detected within the opening minutes of any given film. It's an instinct built over time, not by choice. I don't mean predictable elements ready for deconstruction, but a mood, perhaps intent, that ignites immediatley, indicating how determined a filmmaker is to conjure atmosphere or even basic clarity. The dramedy "What Goes Up" is a picture without such an establishing ambiance. The film opens chaotically, perhaps randomly, and it never finds its proper footing. Most movies take their sweet time to reveal incompetence. "What Goes Up" boldly advertises it within the first 60 seconds.
The year is 1986, on the eve of Christa McAuliffe's flight on the space shuttle Challenger, and depressed reporter Campbell Babbitt (Steve Coogan) has been sent to New Hampshire to cover the celebration. Arriving at a small town full of eccentrics (including Josh Peck, Olivia Thirlby, Hilary Duff, and Molly Shannon) to begin his work, Babbitt instead stumbles upon the suicide of a local teacher and the emotional damage the death leaves behind. Assuming the guise of the teacher's friend, Babbitt hopes to land a story from the tragedy, cozying up to a group of teenagers left in a state of shock and ready to confess their sins to any comforting soul eager to hear them.
Quirk is the weapon of choice for "What Goes Up," a calculated, morose, and moderately abstract take on journalistic integrity, emotional paralysis, and hipster indie film woe. Co-writer/director Jonathan Glatzer puts in a muddled effort to articulate idiosyncrasy, using the gimmick of the '80s setting to tell a story of twisted morality and unanticipated redemption. It's a pastiche of soundtrack cuts, shapeless performances, and a bizarre setting. The true crime here is that "What Goes Up" is a standard-issue assortment of oddball art-house identities and motivations that Glatzer fails to make count in some spectacular manner. There's literally no reason to care about anything that occurs in the film, a fact made increasingly uncomfortable the more effort Glatzer pushes his bland, cutesy vision on the viewer.
I supposed Babbitt's immoral invasion into the lives of the local teens is where "What Goes Up" is supposed to hold its greatest poignancy. Glatzer never finds a pulse to the proceedings, seeming more interested in hackneyed displays of kook and angst that eventually separate the film from the character catharsis it sporadically desires to communicate. Glatzer doesn't help the situation with his unimaginative casting, pitting an overanxious Coogan against a sea of indication-heavy young actors. The picture's film-school-ready framing and transitional ornamentation also tends to grate on the senses. If only Glatzer had shown as much interest in refining and stripping the screenplay of obnoxious artifice as he does his time-lapse photography and God's view thematic reach, there might've been more to root for here than just for the end credits to arrive.
Presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1 aspect ratio), "What Goes Up" has a curious visual concentration on misted winter landscapes and bloodless character skintones. The DVD captures the almost vampiric look acceptably, only losing footing with dark interior shots that give the image a murky quality. Cinematographic detail is available for observation, and colors appear to be purposefully left out of the equation.
The musical score by Roddy Bottum and Electrelane lends the Dolby Digital 5.1 sound mix on the DVD an ethereal lift, flowing through the surround channels with a delightful mystery and power. Being a film of mainly verbal interaction, the rest of the track plays it cool, concentrating on crisp dialogue exchanges and blustery atmospherics.
English subtitles are included.
As Babbitt invests himself deeply into the community, caught up its myriad of problems and psychological reflective surfaces, "What Goes Up" ping pongs back and forth between heavy emotional bite and uneasy slapstick comedy (with the backdrop being the Challenger disaster - tasteful!). It's a wobbly tonal balance that wears out its welcome quickly, exacerbated by Glatzer's stubborn belief that a story this inconsequential and elementary needed nearly two hours of screentime to sort itself out.