REVIEW: What Goes Up
Early in WHAT GOES UP, Josh Peck delivers a blistering eulogy--blistering because he manages to simultaneously convey just how much pain his character is feeling (heads up; it’s a lot) while delivering it an unnervingly hilarious way. It’s wonderful because it’s so true to life because most funerals are (or should be) filled with equal parts tears and laughter. It’s exactly what WHAT GOES UP strives to be--a funny movie about death, a sad movie about life. Most of the time, it works.
You can’t talk about WHAT GOES UP without talking about Steve Coogan, who excels in creating characters who make horrible, horrible decisions (back up off that Hilary Duff, sir!) while still appealing to his (wholly mortified) audience. His performance in WHAT GOES UP is similar to his performance in HAMLET 2, just with slightly less desperation and slightly more confusion. Coogan’s Campbell Babbitt is a journalist with a secret (ooooh!), who gets sent to icy New Hampshire to cover the Christa “Teacher in Space” McAuliffe story, as she is launched into space on the Challenger mission. Campbell is supposed to hang out at her high school and piece together dispatches for his newspaper. He’s bored of it within hours, but then something happens and then everything changes. Campbell Babbitt is suddenly the most important person in the world to a select group of “potent rejects” from McAuliffe’s high school.
The best part about WHAT GOES UP is easily the ragtag gang of teenagers foisted on Campbell. While Hilary Duff is surely supposed to be our main focus (she is certainly Coogan’s), director Jonathan Glatzer has populated WHAT GOES UP with a number of amusing and believable kiddos and scenarios: Lute and her shoplifting problem, Peggy and Fenster with their blossoming dysfunctional romance, and a conjoined set of “BEFRI STENDS” best friends that will ring true with anyone who ever even set foot in a high school.
But it’s Olivia Thirlby who exceeds all expectations. Many reviewers like to trot out a stable of stock starts to describe outstanding performances – nonsensical things like “an actress in the full control of her powers.” Thirlby is the exact opposite; she seems to have no idea just how good she is, which lends her performance a gutsy rawness most other actresses of her age would be too self-conscious to embrace. She’s the unshakable moral center of the film, even when she (might) be wrong, even when she (might) be lying, even when she (might) be broken.
But despite this large stockpile of good, there are problems with WHAT GOES UP. The film falters in its middle third, when some characters veer shakily off course and certain changes of heart seem too complete to just blame on the wacky effects of mourning a sudden loss. There’s a difference between a character making a believably bad decision and a character shunting aside everything an audience has learned about them for a little shock factor. WHAT GOES UP already has enough going for it that it shouldn’t feel the need to throw us a curveball just for a curveball’s sake.
At times, the funny kitsch factor Glatzer tries to infuse the film with gets pushed a bit too far, particularly when it comes to the ring-a-ding crew known as The Blastoff Choir. Every time they scampered onto the screen, my jaw would drop, and I long ago ceased to be surprised by just about anything. Paper mache hasn’t been this painfully funny since third grade, and their earnest dedication to performing one of the most insane high school productions in recent memory (and I’ve seen all three HIGH SCHOOL MUSICALS) is endearing. But it’s too often so bizarre that you don’t know when to look away and when to laugh.
WHAT GOES UP ends minutes before the looming tragedy that anyone with even a rudimentary grasp on NASA history will already know is coming. But we’ve already had our tragedy for the day, and in the moments we could laugh through it, that’s when WHAT GOES UP is most worth watching.