An epic dramedy of teenage angst that is too much drama and not enough comedy for Steve Coogan’s good
New writer/director Jonathan Glatzer’s new dramedy “What Goes Up” plunges understated British comedy star Steve Coogan (“Alan Partridge” TV series) into a sea of teen age angst with mixed results. Coogan doesn’t have the opportunity to be funny all the time in this film. After all, how funny can it be when the film starts off with the suicide death of a cult hero high school teacher? So although he comes off at times like a fish out of water Coogan shows some acting chops with real dimension. He can play serious roles as well as light comedy but the time has not come for his major breakthrough in drama.
The film makes use of the tried and true “trading places” parent-child format where the oldster finds out he has a lot to learn from the high school students. In the “Partridge” series he plays the perpetual loser cursed with the knack of saying and doing the wrong thing at the wrong time. The role of reporter Babbit gives him the space to observe while not having to figure everything out all at once. This lends a nice mystery to the plot and allows the painful pasts of the students to unfold.
The students themselves are a mixed lot, an ensemble cast of kids who gather up one part or another of the teenagers wise beyond their years in “Rushmore,” “Juno” and the film that started it all, Hal Ashby’s 1971 immortal “Harold and Maude.” Unlike these previous teenage heroes these kids have connections to the school and to the previous God-like teacher. The teacher did some things that were right and some that were wrong. This is unlike the world of Babbit, a world in which the writer’s pen allows him to make things more the way he wants therm. These young adults don’t need him or his fantasies, it is a take it or leave it proposition.
Hilary Duff (“A Cinderella Story”) plays Lucy, a teenager with an emotional neediness that spells trouble for any high school teacher. Olivia Thirlby (Leah in “Juno”) and Josh peck are the other leaders of the pack by virtue of their eccentricity and their ability to throw the world’s failings back in its face. Like funhouse mirrors, they both distort the slings and arrows of life and send them back with an extra sting with which few adults can cope. There are too many cooks in this kitchen, too many eccentric teens coming in and out of the picture. Is there no normalcy left?
In “American Graffiti” the teenagers were used as the bright beginnings of their brave new world. In this film the teenagers are the prophets writing on the subways walls and tenement halls. The message they are sending out is one of complete understanding and that is very disconcerting. We told these kids to do what we say not what we do and they are failing to get the message. Even worse, they are failing to get the message, blaming us for sending it and warning us they may not be able to entirely fix the mess they have inherited.
Having said that, the story is not overly negative. It the end it manages to be a healthy joining of common emotions across generations. The strength of combined points of view and the message of the power of diversity makes it positive viewing matter for the whole family. Unfortunately the kids themselves come off as a little too odd and a little too eccentric for their years. Actual teenagers and their parents may spend the entire 107 minutes of the film waiting for some semblance of reality. The audience cries out for the relief of either the adults or the teenagers showing some genuine day-in-day-out lack of emotion; as in “How should I know, why should I care.” The kids seem to know, and care, about everything. God help us.
Cinematography is by Antonio Calvache who also shot “Little Children” and “In the Bedroom.” His no nonsense style of lighting and framing bring a sense of the here and now to the scenes. This is realistic stuff; there are few places to hide out; no nostalgic hot dog stands or homecoming banners. The scenes are slow and thoughtful as though daring the viewer to understand the seriousness of what is being discussed. To bad it all so serious and so eccentric. Even “Harold and Maude” had its light side.
Directed by: Jonathan Glatzer
Written by: Jonathan Glatzer and Robert Lawson
Starring: Steve Coogan and Hilary Duff
Release: May 29, 2009
MPAA: Rated R for sexuality, language and some drug use, all involving teens
Runtime: 107 minutes