Amiable romantic comedy "Starter for Ten" charts a greenhorn freshman's first loves and mixed fortunes on TV quiz show "University Challenge" during the post-punk mid-'80s, when social commitment and black leggings were all the rage. Showcasing the considerable talents of ubiquitous thesp James McAvoy ("The Last King of Scotland," "Penelope") and several other up-and-coming Brit actors, pic garnishes fairly standard college-set plot with wit, warmth and unexpected turns.
Amiable romantic comedy “Starter for Ten” charts a greenhorn freshman’s first loves and mixed fortunes on TV quiz show “University Challenge” during the post-punk mid-’80s, when social commitment and black leggings were all the rage. Showcasing the considerable talents of ubiquitous thesp James McAvoy (“The Last King of Scotland,” “Penelope”) and several other up-and-coming Brit actors, pic garnishes fairly standard college-set plot with wit, warmth and unexpected turns. “Starter” will score most B.O. points in Blighty, but could have modest success offshore with anglophile and young auds, especially if marketing successfully exploits nostalgia for the period.
Pic’s title is a catchphrase from “University Challenge,” an authentic long-running quiz series pitting teams of four students from one institution of higher education against another. Originally based on America’s “College Bowl,” “University Challenge has become something of a national institution in the U.K. Observing class rivalry in action is one of the key attractions of the show, especially as teams from the poshest universities, Oxford and Cambridge, tend to win the championship regularly.
In line with screenwriter David Nicholls’ original novel on which the pic is based, class is a palpable but not overplayed. Pic’s hero is a working-class Essex-boy, Brian Jackson (McAvoy), who’s always wanted to prove his smarts. When he’s accepted to Bristol U., a respected but mid-ranking English institution, he is automatically crossing a class line that will estrange him from his single-parent mom (comedienne Catherine Tate, affecting) and ne’er-do-well best friend Spencer (Dominic Cooper).
At a party, he meets willowy but earnest Rebecca Epstein (Rebecca Hall, daughter of legit helmer Sir Peter Hall), whose idea of fun is to attend protest marches. Brian’s head is also turned by stunning, high-WASP blonde Alice Harbinson (Alice Eve, daughter of the actor Trevor Eve), whom he meets at a try-out for the school’s “University Challenge” team.
Script by Nicholls’ and helming by feature debutant Tom Vaughan (whose resume includes episodes of TV series “Cold Feet” and several short films) seamlessly lace together the romantic, quiz-show, and Essex-background subplots to build to a surprise that’s refreshingly out of line with the underdog-victory outcome such fare usually supplies. If there are life lessons here, they’re harsh ones — although they’re taught with a gentle, forgiving spirit.
Youthful, ebullient tone is not dissimilar to producer Tom Hanks’ own directorial effort “That Thing You Do!” (1996), while pic’s slick tech package and expensive soundtrack of ’80s hits self-consciously invokes John Hughes’ teen comedies of the period, like “The Breakfast Club,” but with an overlay of brittle, British humor.
Although nearly all the actors in the ensemble look a little too old to pass for college students, thesping is uniformly fine. The protean McAvoy, who’s actually 27, once again proves to be a magnetic presence on screen despite the fact he’s not a conventional male beauty. It’s not hard to see why either woman would be attracted to him, despite his geeky manner. Both femmes, Hall and Eve, invest characters with intelligence as well as good looks, but for sheer comic brio, Benedict Cumberbatch proves the scene-stealer as priggish team captain Patrick.