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I think it’s time I just gave up on the notion of Steve Coogan starring in a U.S. production suitable to his talent. I haven’t liked a single movie he’s top-billed in since 2005’s A Cock and Bull Story, the last role with any real gravity for him, ironically playing Steve Coogan. What Goes Up affords him no better opportunity to display his charm than his previous efforts such as Lies & Alibis or the funny but deeply flawed Hamlet 2.

Already seemingly typecast in the U.S. as an arrogant opportunist, Coogan’s flailing reporter is on his last legs with his newspaper assignment in 1986. He subsequently gets shipped off to the hometown of the soon-to-be-late teacher and astronaut Sally Ride by his exasperated editor, the first of many stock characters. Upon arrival he attempts to contact an old schoolmate only to learn of his recent suicide. A schoolteacher, his friend left behind a grieving collective of oddballs that he educated in “the Shed,” their detached classroom. They take an immediate shine to Coogan as someone who can fill the sudden void left behind. The class is a textbook example of forced indie film quirkiness as a substitute for real character.

The result, of course, is these characters are half-formed, unnecessary or utterly pointless. Hillary Duff’s Lucy (Diamond, in a gag that was corny when Cameron Crowe penned it in Almost Famous) is a lightweight seductress with sights set on Coogan. Her semi-nemesis and apparent challenger for the affections of the late teacher, Olivia Thirlby, bears her own After School Special in the most obvious secret filmed lately. The only thing worse than the secret is its big reveal, when Coogan confronts her knowingly with what every viewer figured out an hour ago. A girl paralyzed in an accident continually has sex with her friend in order that she might begin to feel something. This has no real bearing on the plot and its inclusion serves to pad out the film into overlong territory. Two nearly identical girls parade through the movie acting what I suppose was meant to be baffling in a cute sort of way, but came off more as sever head trauma. They come off as the films narrators who never bring any insight to the proceedings.

This film loves its heavy handed metaphor. Besides the looming Challenger disaster, it focuses on such atom-bomb-hints as a copy of Romeo and Juliet for too long to maintain any subtlety. Those are just the most egregious examples that come to mind. I groaned more than once during these scenes, such as the papier-mâché space shuttle falling and breaking during the superfluous plot of the school’s musical presentation. So much of this type of thing could have been cut to make room for character development that it becomes frustrating to see these loose ends dangling as a viewer.

Were it not for the inclusion of the doomed flight of the Challenger, I would never have known the film to be set 23 years earlier than its release date. Nothing about its look particularly captures the era in a way that could not be just as easily explained as retro outfits and old cars for teenagers, save maybe Coogan’s AMC Gremlin. That likely would not hold up until 2009, but given the heavy hand in props and metaphor in this film I would not put it past the director to use it regardless, the Gremlin being the longstanding mark of a broke loser.

What Goes Up really just is not a very well crafted film in any regard. The performances mostly range below average, the characters are poorly drawn and the drama really isn’t very engaging. I hope someone gets Steve Coogan some better comedic roles soon because he really does have the charisma and talent to carry a movie, but not this movie, if anyone could. 2 stars

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