VIDEO: The trailer for Starter for Ten
“You’re not going to turn into a wanker?” It’s 1985, and homie Spencer is worried that his pal Brian is going to put on airs when off at university.
That’s precisely what happens in Tom Vaughan's Starter for Ten (opening this Friday at the Kendall Square), a glib but agreeable film adaptation of David Nicholls’s sprightly, Nick Hornby–like 2003 novel. Nicholls chipped in with the screenplay, dramatizing the misadventures and endless missteps of a blue-collar Brit kid from the unfashionable Essex port town of Southend who matriculates at Bristol University, not posh but definitely higher-class. In Brian’s town at the tip of the Thames, stringy-haired blokes are still blasting away the Zep’s “Stairway to Heaven.” At school, his foppish roomies do ping-pong in negligee drag, and the music of the moment is New Order and the Cure.
Brian (The Last King of Scotland’s James McAvoy) is, from the first, a bit of a dilettante and a poseur, plastering his teensy bedroom with magazine cutouts to impress potential chickmates: photos of Leonard Cohen and Oscar Wilde, Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, etc. Although he’s been a passionate learner as a teenager, he’s now distracted in his classes. And even his one stab at intellectual respectability goes awry, when he auditions to be on the Bristol team for University Challenge, a Jeopardy-like telly quiz show analogous to America’s 1960s GE College Bowl. Brian is quick with answers, but at key moments he’s a cheat. And as his head is turned by horsey-set lassies, he gets farther and farther from his education. He’s also a fearsome snob, sneering down his nose at his working-class mum and her well-meaning but coarse boyfriend, Des, the operator of a déclassé Mr. Whippy ice cream truck.
There are moments when we just lose Brian as our protagonist. His small failings pile up, and why should we root for him? He’s a dolt. This is particularly clear as he spends half the movie chasing after the obviously wrong young lady, the blonde and buxom Alice (Alice Eve), who if they ever seriously hooked up would be his ruination. She’s spoiled, rich, and superficial, and she’s had dozens of boyfriends already. What does she need with a gawky, almost-virginal 19-year-old? You’ll yawn while waiting for the predictable moment when Brian “learns his lesson” and concentrates his attention on the coed of substance, the blunt, cynical-but-idealistic, Jewish-leftist protester Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), she of the dark eyes and Carly Simon–wide mouth.
What saves Starter for Ten are some very funny scenes. Brian tries to impress Alice with what he regards as a classy Italian restaurant, one with inverted Chianti bottles rammed in the ceiling. It’s every bumbling undergraduate’s First Big Date! Then there are meetings of the University Challenge team at the flat of the twit captain, Patrick (the aptly named actor Benedict Cumberbatch), whose straight-arrow clothes, stiff haircut, and amusingly uptight demeanor will remind you of The Office’s Dwight.
The title? It’s from University Challenge: “A starting question worth 10 points.”
Ian McCrudden’s Islander (also this Friday at the Kendall Square and the West Newton) is a well-meaning but too-somber regional tale of Eben (Thomas Hildreth), a hot-headed Maine fisherman whose temper leads to the death of a young seaman and, while he’s in jail serving time, the dissolution of his marriage. When Eben gets out, the film slowly, and predictably, traces his penance and his return to the grace of his tight-jawed community. Islander is neither bad nor especially distinguished. Without stars, and with an anguished masochistic story, its theatrical life can only be brief.