Thursday, May 28, 2009

Teen Angst: What Goes Up

A burned out New York Times reporter falsifies a series of stories out of whole cloth—not exactly a shocking premise. Yet we are not supposed to judge Campbell Babbitt too harshly, because his motives are noble, well sort of. Aside from the fact that he has one of the greatest movie names in recent years, it is hard to get a handle on the troubled and troubling protagonist of Jonathan Glatzer’s pseudo-comedy What Goes Up (trailer here), opening this Friday in New York.

Babbitt has broken one iron-clad rule of journalism after another. The first was falling in love with a woman he was covering: “Angela,” the anonymous mother of young son murdered in a senseless street crime. When the crusading Angela takes her own life out of despair, Babbitt cannot bring himself to report the truth, fabricating multiple stories about her campaign against crime.

A complete basket case, Babbitt’s irritated editor assigns him the kind of human interest story he seems to specialize in: New Hampshire’s Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher in space. However, in this fictionalized treatment, McAuliffe’s high school has already suffered the untimely loss of one teacher when the broken-down Times scribe arrives. In a twist of fate, the late teacher was Sam Calalluci, an old friend of Babbitt’s.

Sensing a story, Babbitt exaggerates his relationship to Calalluci to win the trust of his grieving homeroom class. It works only too well, as his class of misfits adopts the morally comprised reporter as their new mentor figure. However, he is only too willing to get close to one student, Lucy Diamond, played by teen-aged “It-Girl” Hilary Duff, in one of Up’s several highly questionable subplots.

Up sees itself as a meditation on the reality and perception of real life heroes, which becomes painfully obvious from the ubiquitous presence of David Bowie’s “Heroes” in the soundtrack. Of course, the inevitable fate of Christa McAuliffe and the rest of the shuttle crew hangs over the film, putting a damper on the would-be comedic moments. It is a reality Glatzer never brings himself to deal with, ending the film shortly before the tragic launch.

Clearly, Glatzer and co-screenwriter Robert Lawson want to say much about the nature of heroism, but Up’s tone is so wildly inconsistent, the picture is ultimately a complete muddle. Steve Coogan seems to specialize in films that feature pivotal high school stage productions, but unlike Hamlet 2, he is allowed to keep his British accent here. In fact, he is quite convincing as the world-weary Babbitt. Unfortunately, he is often forced into smarmy situations which border on the outright criminal. Aside from Coogan and a surprisingly effective Duff, Up’s promising cast is largely wasted on stock characters, like the shrewish Penelope Little, played by SNL alumnus Molly Shannon.

At times, Up tries to be a thoughtful examination of the need to be inspired, particularly at a young age. However, it often degenerates into exploitative scenes of teenaged sexuality. While it has one or two interesting moments, Up just does not work as a film. It opens this Friday (5/29) in New York at the Quad.