As if journalism hasn’t suffered enough of late, along comes “What Goes Up,” a pointless and pretentious drama that — given its title and direct linkage to the 1986 Challenger shuttle disaster — nearly adds tasteless to its unflattering hat trick. In his feature debut, co-writer/director/producer/editor Jonathan Glatzer makes one unfortunate choice after another, taking a story that desperately wants to resonate as “important” and rendering it merely irritating. The cast’s bold-faced names — Steve Coogan, Hilary Duff, “Juno’s” Olivia Thirlby — seem unlikely to prevent a rough landing.
Glatzer (who wrote the screenplay with Robert Lawson, liberally adapted from the latter’s play) states in the press notes that his goal was to “put heroism in America under the microscope,” but what’s onscreen proves far too disjointed to coherently make that clear.
Best known Stateside for comedy (“Tropic Thunder,” “Hamlet 2”), Coogan plays Campbell Babbitt, a reporter who — after having an affair with an interview subject — has covered up her suicide and proceeded to write a series of uplifting pieces about her. Babbitt’s Jayson Blair-like turn has gone undetected, but his boss dispatches him to write about Christa McAuliffe, the New Hampshire educator chosen to become the first teacher in space, who tragically died along with the entire crew.
Once at the school, Babbitt exhibits little appetite for this human-interest story and tries to look up another teacher who’s an old college acquaintance. Alas, he’s also apparently committed suicide, leaving behind a crestfallen group of teenage misfits with whom he appeared to share rather unsavory bonds.
The group includes the flirtatious Lucy (Duff, in what amounts to a near-adult role) and the brooding Tess (Thirlby). With Lucy leading the way and Tess disapproving, the kids are strangely intent on drafting the reporter to assume the place of their late teacher, whom they describe with cult-like reverence, calling him “almost a priest.”
What transpires thereafter is too awkwardly constructed to be disturbing, but the teens verge on seeming sexually predatory. The truly crippling miscalculation, though, is using the slow-building hoopla toward the Challenger launch as a backdrop, including a school musical revue assembled by another hapless teacher (a wasted Molly Shannon). Then again, the songs, grainy TV footage of Ronald Reagan and a scene in which Babbitt bangs out prose on a typewriter (newsflash: We actually had computers by the mid-’80s) provide constant reminders of the era, as if the Challenger tie-in wasn’t enough.
Beyond showcasing a darker streak, Coogan can’t find any logic in his character, who is ostensibly grappling with a moral dilemma about his earlier deception. The kids are mostly OK but at times behave as if they parachuted in from a Stanley Kubrick film, only without Kubrick to guide them.
As for Duff, the one-time “Lizzie McGuire” star looks winsome, but her alter ego is aptly described as “a very confused girl.”
That she is, in a very confused movie.