Starter for 10
Were your family ever serial game or quiz show watchers? The Money or the Bag anyone? Or perhaps a bit of Sale of the Century was your thing. Well, the game show for clever types was, without a doubt, University Challenge and this is happens to be the obsession of Starter for 10’s leading lad Brian Jackson (the ever charming James McAvoy). Brian is an Essex boy (read: wrong side of the tracks) whose dream growing up is simply “to be clever”. His passion for knowing the answers is fanned by family gatherings around the tele watching University Challenge and eventually he earns a place, (socially) far from family and friends, as an undergraduate student at Bristol University.
Once out from under the shadow of his familial surrounds he experiences all the stereotypical happenings of student life: dubiously themed parties (tarts’n’vicars), low grade drug experimentation, girls aplenty, and intellectual idealism to boot. Brian’s journey revolves around making it onto his institution’s University Challenge team and, more importantly, finding the right girl – which incidentally serves the process of helping Brian to ‘find himself’. Of course there are two terribly appealing, polar opposite, feminine alternatives supplied who provide the sugar-coated framework for Brian’s voyage of self discovery. On the one hand his beautiful, clever, rich, self-assured and very blond quiz team mate Alice (Alice Eve); on the other his equally pretty, radical lefty bohemian and very brunette friend Rebecca (Rebecca Hall). Plot interest is added via a clash of social spheres between Brian’s home and university lives: can he be who he wants to be and manage it without becoming – in the words of his long-time Essex mate Spencer – “a posh wanker”?
Based on the identically titled 2003 novel by David Nicholls (who also adapted the screenplay), Starter for 10, which gets its title from the well known question-launching catchphrase of beloved longtime host Bamber Gascoigne, is essentially a stock formula coming-of-age romantic comedy. You can pretty much guess how things pan out for Brian after the first 10mins of screen time but the richness of the film is in way it is played. Virgin featured director, Tom Vaughan, ticks all the right boxes creating a crowd pleasing rom-com whilst imbuing it with enough charm and wit to lift it above the morass of forgettable, cash’n’dash pretenders which line the comedy shelves at our local DVD rental stores. For my money Starter for 10 achieves what it sets out to do: charm and entertain. The filmmakers create a better whole out of the film than its constituent parts might otherwise suggest. Don’t get me wrong, Starter will likely garner no critical awards – it doesn’t traverse any new ground or leave you with much to take away, save a smile or two – but it very much takes pride of place amidst the upper echelons of its genre peers. Add to this the best kind of nostalgic 80s soundtrack (including: The Smiths, The Cure, Psychedelic Furs, Echo & the Bunnymen, The Buzzcocks, and Motorhead!) and uniformly excellent turns from a notable young cast and you have an enjoyable and well executed, if somewhat cheesily predictable, movie.
If there is anything we can take from Brian’s journey it is not, perhaps, what the filmmakers intended: that sometimes the best things for you are the things right in front of you. They, like many Hollywood productions, cause this purpose to be self-defeating by making the second, ultimately more worthy choice more appealing than the first in every way. Rebecca outshines Alice from beginning to end thereby making the choice a no-brainer. An example they could learn from, and perhaps more honestly realised than most, is the similar eventual translation of Marianne’s affection from Willoughby to Colonel Brandon in Ang Lee’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1995). No, what Brian’s story illustrates is that it is through our mistakes that growth and learning occurs. It is not so much that we make them that matters but how we respond to them that shapes, more fully, who we will become.