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Funny this review; it’s taken me ages to write it, and I have no idea why. Nothing could be more cut and dried than this twee British rom-com. Our hero, one Brian Jackson (James McAvoy), an earnest, working-class Essex boy, leaves the warmth of his loving, supportive family to enter into university, circa 1985. Aspirations of academic excellence aren’t enough for ambitious Brian, though. No, Ma’am, he’s got bigger fish to fry. The largest haddock being his dream of being on University Challenge, Britain’s classic and eternally-aired quiz show that pits two opposing school against each other in a contest of superior intellect. (The closest thing to it on American shores is Jeopardy, but, I would have to qualify that statement by the inclusion of Alex Trebek. I’m really sure that University Challenge doesn’t suffer from having at least one question about Canada per show and another question that includes a phlegmatic mangling of the French language on every …single…show {Well, that saves me having to write about Jeopardy in TV Addict, dunnit?}.) 

Whilst in his new role as University of Brighton student, Brian learns all sorts of lifey-type lessons. Will he turn into the “poncey wanker” his mates back in Essex are so sure he will? Will Brian stop playing out of his league with the posh, gorgeous Alice (Alice Eve), to ever recognize the true inner beauty of the smart, socially conscious Rebecca (Rebecca Hall – they didn’t much struggle over character names here, did they?)? Most important of all, will Brian ever get his chance to show the world all he knows on University Challenge? 

Well, my dears, the answers to these questions and a couple others, could not be more obvious or predictable. Starter for 10 is no exercise in brain activity. It is pat and cliché from beginning to end. Yet, I do not necessarily hold that against the film. (I’ll get to what I do hold against it in a hot second) Starter for 10 has the almost magical quality of employing a cast so endearing and adorable that I could not hate this movie. Truly, I have yet to see a film that I thought was so mediocre be lifted out of my disdain simply because I thought the leads were cute as bunnies. Alice Eve and Rebecca Hall somehow managed to take characters that would otherwise be completely one-dimensional and they infuse them with charm, life, and sympathy.

The intriguingly named Benedict Cumberbatch is the comic relief of the piece, playing the Brighton team’s University Challenge captain, Patrick. Patrick has played University Challenge before and lost spectacularly. He shares videotaped moments of his traumatic defeat with his new teammates and bristles at the notion that he shouldn’t be captain simply because he lost. His overzealous devotion to leading his team to unqualified victory are broad and slapstick and ofttimes the only shot of adrenaline in the film. (Outside perhaps of an odd nude scene between Charles Dance and Rome’s Lindsay Duncan in an extended cameo as Alice’s liberal parents – I always liked Atia better).  

And then there’s McAvoy … ah, McAvoy … Part of me wishes Starter for 10 was a more splashy affair like its gaudy cousin, “Four Weddings and a Funeral in Notting Hill, where Bridget Jones found Love, Actually”, whom it vaguely resembles, in a lower-budget-less-American-Actors, squinty way. The other part is quite glad that it’s more earnest and less “Wow, aren’t British people quaint?” than that. But I can’t stop myself from making unfortunate comparisons. I left Starter for 10 thinking, “That James McAvoy is the thinking girls (or boy’s) Hugh Grant”, which is an insult to McAvoy, because this kid’s a keeper. No hate for H.G, but McAvoy, while bearing some of the awkward romance of Grant’s puppy-like characters in the R. Curtis films, has none of the affectedness of Grant’s lean-to’s; the floppy hair, the eyes that blink so furiously you think he’s about to have a seizure, the nerdy stuttering. Nah, McAvoy does adorable without seeming the least bit contrived. Maybe it’s early days yet, but I see big things for this guy (And I’m not just saying that cos I’ve finally seen Last King of Scotland!). Brian’s struggle for his place in the scheme of Uni life and a life of his own are very touching. Brian’s a decent bloke but when he messes up, he does so stupendously with all the horror of social and moral gaffes reflected in the eyes of the freshman. McAvoy truly fleshes Brian out. There’s a great moment during his first date with Alice where she asks Brian about the death of his beloved and supportive father. McAvoy puts such heart into this scene that you wonder if anyone had ever simply asked Brian how he felt about his dad dying before, and it’s one of the little moments that lifts Starter for 10 above a Lifetime Movie of the Week, UK edition.  

Now let me get off my trunk some of my serious irks with the film.  I realize that some folks watching this movie are not music aficionados. I’m told that some of the audience, and indeed the majority of the cast, were not even old enough to recall the 80’s. Bearing all that in mind, I couldn’t help but be distracted by the serious lack of chronology in some of the music choices. Nitpicky I know, but 80’s music is a big thing to us get-gown deities. Clearly, those behind the production had a serious Jones for The Cure. Robert Smith’s caterwauling can be endured throughout the movie, and while I was always more in the Japan/Duran Duran/Wham camp (NPI), I can appreciate that Brian’s inner turmoil would be reflected by college mope-rock favourites like the Cure and Tears for Fears (lovely use of The Hurting, BTW), but I found that many of the Cure songs were either just barely on the cusp of 1985, or well and truly after (Pictures of You was a very popular prom song in 1989, or so I am told). Which leads nicely into my other gripe, I know the producers probably didn’t want a 1980’s costume party, but almost nobody really looked all that 80’s to my all-seeing eyes. There is one moment where you’ve got Alice Eve done up a-la-Pat Benatar, then later working an extremely mauve gown that looks like it fell off the Dynasty wardrobe cart. And Rebecca’s drainpipe black jeans and black Converse Ones clearly identify her as Protest Girl, but outside of those few exceptions, nobody else looked all that 80’s to me. Where was the Day-Glo? Where were the rubber bracelets and crucifixes? What the hell does Frankie Say? Why did no man sport a single mullet (There is a pale attempt on McAvoy’s head that seems like the stylist copped out at the last second before the final snip)? Britain being so at the forefront of 80’s culture and fashion, why set the movie in 1985, when you can’t tell it is? Okay, rant over.

Anyway, back on the positive. Starter for 10 is a sweet little movie, an absolute bon-bon. It’s not going to change the world or inspire great thought, but there are worse ways to spend an hour and a half than watching these up and coming new stars in a perfectly agreeable film. It should been out in time for Valentine’s Day because, it’s a great date flick; trouble is, your date is probably going to run out on you once the movie’s over and fly to Scotland to track down James McAvoy.

 

Mighty Ganesha

~ March 4th, 2007

 

 

 

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