3 stars (out of four)
"Starter for 10," is a sprightly British romantic comedy of no great moment but also without serious miscues. The movie, based on a semi-autobiographical novel by its screenwriter David Nicholls, re-creates '80s college life with great relish, taking its title from a popular British TV program (still running today) called "University Challenge"-a quiz show that pits teams of brainy young students from competing schools against each other in a sporting match format cribbed from the old American show "College Bowl."
"College Bowl" is long gone, though I remember well both the program and its bespectacled, teacherish host Allen Ludden. But it's re-created here, in all its '80s glory, with an actor, Mark Gatiss, said to be a dead ringer for Ludden's British counterpart, Bamber Gascoigne, and a big scene, a grudge match between hero (or anti-hero) Brian Jackson's team, Bristol University, and long-time nemesis, Queens College Cambridge.
Brian is a working-class lad (played by James McAvoy, Forest Whitaker's co-star in "The Last King of Scotland") from coastal Essex, whose improbable but engaging first-year adventures take him through a decisive rite of passage. These escapades include romances with two gorgeous fellow students-sexy blond Alice (Alice Eve) and willowy radical Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), his true soulmate-as well as a stormy tenure on the four-person Bristol "University Challenge" team, run by the obsessed team captain and three-time loser Patrick (Benedict Cumberbatch).
The result is packed with both cliches and charm, and its director, Tom Vaughan, would obviously be flattered if you compared it to the '80s teen comedies of John Hughes, such as "Pretty in Pink" and "Ferris Bueller's Day Off." So might its producer, Tom Hanks.
In a way, "Starter for 10" deserves the comparison. Hughes' pre-"Home Alone" movies managed to elevate teen problems and angst to comic and sometimes even dramatic stature-and so does "Starter for 10." We can feel for Brian, played lightly and winningly by McAvoy as a kid with a real problem, a rougher-edged background shared with his old Essex leather-jacket mates Spencer and Tone (played by Dominic Cooper and James Corden, of "The History Boys"). That puts him at odds with snobs such as Patrick and makes him prey for playgirls such as Alice, a "University Challenge" teammate who conquers him with a few radiant smiles and off-color wisecracks.
At the same time, it sometimes seems almost mad wish-fulfillment to show a sometime bookworm like Brian hooking up so easily with what seem to be the two prettiest and most desirable girls on campus (played by Eve, a genuine Patsy Kensit-style knockout, and Hall, the fetching daughter of famed British stage director Peter Hall). If Brian is that much of an effortless lady-killer, why wouldn't he have a string of girlfriends back in Essex?
Then again, why look a romantic comedy in the mouth?
At least, "Starter for 10" (which takes its title from a "University Challenge" catchphrase meaning "starting question for 10 points") shows believable weaknesses. Brian is quite a fallible guy, and so are his friends (especially Spencer) and his captain. So, too, are Alice and even her parents, Charles Dance and Lindsay Duncan as a posh couple who have obviously seen "The Graduate." There are even signs that Rebecca, despite her social conscience, can be a bit too "angry."
"Starter for 10" is cute and smart, just like its star triangle, and it's also well-written, acted and directed. It's just not particularly original, though for U.S. audiences, the sharp look at '80s British university life sets it apart. So does the solid-gold soundtrack, laced with a batch of '80s pop classics from The Cure, The Smiths, Motorhead and others. And perhaps we shouldn't make too many demands on teen romantic comedies, especially if they celebrate guys like Brian who know about "The Battleship Potemkin."
'Starter for Ten'
Directed by Tom Vaughan; screenplay by David Nicholls, based on his novel; photographed by Ashley Rowe; edited by Jon Harris, Heather Persons; music by Blake Neely; music supervisors Deva Anderson, Delphine Robertson; production design by Sarah Greenwood; produced by Tom Hanks, Gary Goetzman, Pippa Harris. A Picturehouse release; opens Friday at Piper's Alley. Running time: 1:32. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for sexual content, language and a scene of drug use).
Brian - James McAvoy
Alice - Alice Eve
Rebecca - Rebecca Hall
Julie - Catherine Tate
Spencer - Dominic Cooper
Patrick - Benedict CumberbatchCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times