'Starter for 10' is just clever enough
"Ever since I can remember, I've wanted to be clever," says the young narrator at the beginning of "Starter for 10," a cheeky comedy-drama set in England in the mid-1980s. Since he's bound for college, and since this is a coming-of-age movie, he's about to learn that clever is not the same as smart. Would that the filmmakers hadn't slept through class.
"Starter" still manages to charm, despite stopping dutifully at every station of its genre on the way to the end credits. James McAvoy, the hesitant Mr. Tumnus from "The Chronicles of Narnia" and the callow young medic from "The Last King of Scotland," dials back his age to play Brian Jackson, a lower-class Essex lad who arrives at the University of Bristol determined to "know everything."
Brian has his eye on joining the school's team for "University Challenge," a televised college quiz show he grew up watching with his late Da (James Gaddas ). It's a real show, on British TV since 1962, and the film's title comes from longtime host Bamber Gascoigne's opening phrase. (It's like calling a movie "U S Presidents for $300" or "I'll buy a vowel, Pat").
Brian, quick but naive, negotiates the usual university hurdles: party-animal roommates, a scary but kindhearted professor (Guy Henry) , and two potential girl-friends. They're opposite numbers, of course, Betty and Veronica with hair-color reversed. Alice (Alice Eve), a blond bombshell on the quiz team, is an earnest tease with whom Brian is smitten. Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) is a brunette best-pal with radical politics and a low, simmering voice. Guess who the hero ultimately tumbles for? And was John Hughes flown over to work on the script?
"Starter for 10" is based on a novel by David Nicholls and directed by Tom Vaughan; the two have worked together in British TV and it shows. The movie's enjoyable but almost wholly canned, coasting on the pleasure of its post-punk soundtrack and the novelty of the quiz-show scenes. These are admittedly pretty funny, since there are only four members of the Bristol team (a fifth was knocked over by a bus) and the leader is a preening wonk named Watts, played by the splendidly named Benedict Cumberbatch (William Pitt in the recent "Amazing Grace" ).
The romantic subplot is hobbled by the fact that Hall is much more appealing as the "dowdy" Rebecca than Eve is as the "beautiful" nit Alice, and her character seems too no-nonsense to put up with Brian's nonsense. Hall is the daughter of British theater director Sir Peter Hall, and she was Christian Bale's confused wife in "The Prestige." She is lovely and amazing, and I hope we see more of her.
McAvoy, meanwhile, gives his character unexpected strains of weakness. With "Last King" and now this, the actor appears to be specializing in ardent young men whose spines give way in the clutch, and the hero has at least two foot-in-mouth moments here that can make you gasp out loud. Brian's cleverness is more flaw than asset from the beginning, and much of "Starter for 10" is spent waiting for him to catch up to what we already know. (Although there's a good laugh when he asks Alice's mother "Are you trying to seduce me, Mrs. Harbinson?," assuming she'll spot the "Graduate" reference. She doesn't.)
It's all breezy and predictable, and why the producers include folks like Tom Hanks and Sam Mendes is a mystery. Perhaps they're remembering their own shallow school days or wanted to hear the Buzzcocks sing "Ever Fallen in Love" again? That's one for the quiz team.