What Goes Up is so thoroughly pretentious that even the sparse witticisms by Steve Coogan prove unpleasant, serving as reminders that Jonathan Glatzer’s directorial debut is not, in fact, an amusing vehicle for the gifted comedic actor, but instead a turgidly serious-minded period drama about—in no particular order—suicide, sexual abuse, statutory rape, jerking off to the sight of nursing women, and the Challenger space shuttle tragedy. To say the film has bitten off more than it can chew is putting it mildly, though the breadth of topics covered isn’t nearly as problematic as the means by which they’re handled.
Glatzer’s story concerns newspaper journalist Campbell Babbitt (Coogan), who intones at the outset that “legends aren’t born, they’re written” in order to unsubtly establish the primary theme about “the murky side of heroism.” He presumably knows, given that he reported on a real-life saint who, after his glowing article was published, committed suicide and then proceeded to write made-up inspirational stories about her. Sent to Florida to cover teacher-turned-astronaut Christa McAuliffe, Campbell winds up enmeshed in the lives of weirdo high school students mourning the suicide death of their God-like teacher, whom it randomly turns out was Campbell’s old friend. All the kids have hang-ups, including sexy Lucy’s (Hillary Duff) older-man fetish, gloomy Tess’s (Olivia Thirlby) unwanted pregnancy, and brooding Jim’s (Josh Peck) unrequited passion for Lucy. The idol worship-afflicted teens see Campbell as a potential new mentor, while Campbell flirts with the idea of bedding Lucy, tortured dynamics dramatized by Glatzer with herky-jerky edits, ponderous high-minded references (Romeo and Juliet, Socrates), and consistently affected dialogue.
What Goes Up‘s point that Americans create icons to fulfill their own screwy needs is made through contrived and nonsensical plotting, from Jim interrupting his front-lawn peeping-tom self-gratification to rescue a choking baby, to the kids’ community-ignored theft of their beloved teacher’s coffin, to Campbell suddenly—and, narratively speaking, conveniently—winning the Pulitzer for his counterfeit articles. Nominally about heroism, what the film really needs is a dastardly villain who might dispatch some of these self-absorbed twits, whose predicaments are made even more repellent by the film’s use of the impending Challenger explosion as both shallow thematic emphasis and shameless suspense-building device.