Friday, June 19, 2009

The other "What" movie: Jonathan Glatzer's challenging WHAT GOES UP


Though Woody Allen's Whatever Works opens today (unseen as yet by TrustMovies), the "what" film I heartily recommend to any real buff opened three three weeks ago in a limited-run theatrical release and is already out on DVD: WHAT GOES UP by Jonathan Glatzer (shown below, right, with his star Steve Coogan).

It was poet Robert Browning who first suggested that "...a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?" Mr. Glatzer's reach certainly does exceed his grasp, but that's no reason to ignore his very interesting and challenging film -- which oddly enough deals, among other subjects, with the ill-fated Challenger space shuttle and the sky above (both real and symbolic) -- thus bringing us back to the "heaven" reference in Browning's famous quote.

What Goes Up
(a nice title which immediately has you considering its result) follows the path of journalist Campbell Babbitt (a subdued, very real and alternately angry/lovely performance from Mr. Coogan, above left). This "ace" reporter, after a career-making series of articles that, to put it mildly, leave out one important fact that renders almost everything false, is sent by his paper to New Hampshire to do a story on Christa McAuliffe and the Challenger crew, during the week that the shuttle is to launch.

Once there, Babbitt looks up an old school chum who's now a teacher and he -- and we -- soon becomes involved with a group of "special" students, along with other teachers and administrators. There's a lot going on in Glatzer's movie, so much so that some critics found it difficult to follow. It isn't, but it does move along rather quickly, offering only as much info as we need to keep abreast. In the process, its story covers many themes: success and failure, the uses of truth, and the need for heroes. It also gives us these unusual students (two of which are shown above), very well portrayed and nicely differentiated, flailing on the cusp of adulthood as they try to gets their minds and hearts around love -- and death.

In addition to Coogan, the cast includes Hillary Duff, Olivia Thirlby (shown above, and wonderful, as usual), Josh Peck (star of The Wackness, shown at bottom and still adorable while even more whacked out) , Molly Shannon, Max Hoffman and Sarah Lind (the latter two, I believe, are the kids shown two photos up). Due to its fine cast keeping things on track, I don't think there's a dishonest emotional moment in the entire film. Even in the scene that combines masturbation with an endangered infant, the movie manages to stay on course. It's this kind of storytelling skill that keep us with it, even when so many balls are in the air, plot-wise, that we worry they'll fall to the ground. Co-writer (with newcomer Robert Lawson) and director Glatzer, though not yet a great juggler, is at least a good one. He keeps us caring about all his characters, while managing to honor the Challenger and its crew, despite (or even because of) a very funny and sweetly silly high school musical (below) devoted to celebrating the about-to-rise space shuttle.

What Glatzer can't do, however, is to bring home the bacon in terms of providing strong enough focus and resonance to each of his themes. The movie is nearly two hours long, so length is not the problem. Maybe Glatzer was happy to leave things less pronounced than other moviemakers might have made them. His dots are connected, but lightly and fleetingly, and we're left to mull over the movie at our leisure. I have, and in retrospect, when I think about films that deal with the concerns of kids today, I suspect that What Goes Up will prove one of the few that continues to haunt me.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is perhaps the best review of the movie I've seen. Well judged and it grasped the etherial quality of the movie's storytelling. The film does not hammer its points home and maybe it could've used to do that a bit more, but only a bit. It seemed that the director trusted his cast to do that and it paid off. I too am haunted by this film and wish that critics didn't give it such a pass.

James van Maanen, said...

Thanks, Anonymous (though I wish you weren't: Anonymous, I mean). I appreciate the encouraging words, and I'm sure the movie-maker(s) would, too, if they knew of them. I believe there were a very few critics who did praise the film, so it reached a few of us, at least. Not to mention the audience members who managed to see it. The DVD release should help.

Another good film that's subtle and different is the new-to-DVD BOB FUNK. Try that one. If I have the time and energy, I'll write about it, but for now, consider this your personal "tip."