“It’s an institution,” said actress Rebecca Hall of the British quiz show University Challenge. “It will always be there, and people will always watch it.” The program, in which college students answer intensive trivia questions online about everything from literature to astronomy, is the basis for the movie Starter for 10.
The 1985 set coming of age comedy is not without its problems. It’s a bit thin, a bit unfocused, and at times too sentimental. “It’s not hip or anything,” Hall added regarding the quiz show. Neither is the full movie, but it’s infectious. It has charm and a free spirit, which makes me appreciate the film in spite of its many flaws.
We meet our hero Brian Jackson as a boy, watching University Challenge with his father. In voice-over, he explains his thirst for knowledge, and when he’s grown he leaves his working-class neighborhood to pursue a higher education at Bristol University. As a young adult he’s played by James McAvoy (The Last King of Scotland), a charismatic lead who keeps the film afloat even through its rough patches.
Brian claims not to have been born handsome or clever. Nevertheless, he quickly manages to attract the attention of two beautiful women: snarky iconoclast Rebecca (Hall) and buxom blond Alice (Alice Eve). He is immediately smitten by Alice, but the laws of romantic comedy dictate that he must eventually fall for the Unconventional Girl with Substance.
The love triangle follows the predictable course, but thankfully, both women are interesting to watch and not just stock characters in a romantic formula. Hall appeared in The Prestige, which was released online free last fall, but Starter for 10 marks her real debut. She gives a radiant performance as Rebecca, and although the film pays only a modicum of lip service to her activism — she protests everything from nuclear weapons to adult movies — Hall makes her passionate and whip-smart.
Eve’s performance is also impressive. “She isn’t a fool,” Eve said of her character. Indeed, Alice is no dummy — she is a member of Bristol’s University Challenge team along with Brian — and Eve gives her enough substance that we can’t write her off as merely a placeholder for Rebecca.
Some of my favorite scenes take place among the University Challenge team. They are a quirky lot, led by Patrick, an uptight graduate student who has competed in and lost the trivia competition for three consecutive years. Patrick is played by Benedict Cumberbatch as a perpetually clenched control freak. He is a nerdish caricature, but his enthusiasm is catching, and he has his own brand of dignity; he makes me laugh, but I never feel as though he exists simply to be laughed at.
The greatest problem when you watch Starter for 10 is that it is rife with conflict. In addition to Brian’s romantic dilemma, the screenplay includes a cheating scandal, a new relationship for his mother (by then, Brian’s father has passed away), and a class conflict with friends back home that plays like a lightweight Good Will Hunting. The screenplay was written by David Nicholls, based on his novel, and it seems disorganized. Events seem connected only by the fact that they happen to Brian, and there is no guiding force to string together the disparate, underdeveloped story strands.
Meanwhile, the heart of the movie is buried. It is contained within the best scene, a date with Alice during which Brian explains his connection to his father. He chokes back tears, and McAvoy, in a well modulated performance, shows us the emotion that overcomes Brian despite himself. Unfortunately, we learn little more about his relationship with his father than we’re given in this scene. It’s the relationship that defines Brian and the one I longed to know more about.
At the end, another voice-over from Brian attempts to find online an overriding theme to encapsulate the events of the scattered narrative. That theme seems to be, “Everybody makes mistakes.” Suffice it to say that Starter for 10 doesn’t offer anything new in the way of ideas. It’s little more ambitious than a sitcom, a breezy, featherweight romance, but it succeeds on that level. McAvoy described the film as “the John Hughes movie that he never made in Britain,” evoking the man behind such ‘80s Brat Pack classics as The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles. The comparison is apt, and Starter for 10 is an affectionate homage. It left me smiling.