The title is terrible but “Starter for 10” has a heart and a sense of humor that are definitely on target.
Hilarious and sweet, this coming-of-age comedy is a solid successor to the best John Hughes films of the 1980s like “Sixteen Candles.” But it’s filtered through a specifically British prism, with its dry, observant wit and its characters who manage to be absurd yet sympathetic.
The well-established formula is definitely in place here — guy meets two different girls and falls for one, though the other is clearly a better fit — so you’re not seeing anything overwhelmingly new from director Tom Vaughan (making his feature debut) and writer David Nicholls, based on Nicholls’ novel of the same name. But they do add a touch of social commentary and celebrate a thirst for knowledge, which gives “Starter for 10” more brains and heft than most films of its ilk.
James McAvoy is a likable everyman and an easy guy to root for as the awkward Brian Jackson, who leaves his mum (Catherine Tate) and his working-class mates on the Essex coast (including Dominic Cooper from “The History Boys”) to attend Bristol University.
McAvoy has been everywhere in the past couple of years and this is further evidence of his versatility. He appeared memorably in “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” as the friendly faun Mr. Tumnus and co-starred confidently opposite Forest Whitaker in “The Last King of Scotland” as the idealistic doctor who gets drawn into Idi Amin’s lair.
In “Starter for 10,” Brian arrives on campus and immediately feels out of his element (his hard-partying housemates are dressed in drag for a “Tarts and Vicars” party). But in time he finds out who he is, and who he doesn’t want to be, through his relationships with a seductive, wealthy blonde (the effervescent Alice Eve) and a sarcastic, politically active brunette (smart, cool Rebecca Hall).
Guess which one he’s supposed to end up with?
Brian also competes on the “University Challenge” trivia team, a longtime dream of his (and the inspiration for the film’s title — it’s a line from the TV quiz show). As a boy, Brian watched the program with his dad, who’s now deceased, and has been cramming useless information into his brain ever since.
The rapid-fire quiz sequences are simultaneously thrilling and silly, often because team captain Patrick (Benedict Cumberbatch) is such a self-serious prig. As is the case in all great movies of this genre, “Starter for 10” has an illustrious menagerie of misfits and weirdoes, and Patrick is the overzealous king of them all.
The movie also features an excellent ’80s soundtrack that includes hits from The Cure, The Smiths, Yaz, New Order and a particularly inspired use of “I’m Your Man” by Wham! during what could have been an ordinary getting-ready-for-a-first-date sequence. The music mix is yet another example of how “Starter for 10” never makes fun of the era, never wallows in its kitschiness, but rather embraces the time and gets the tone just right.