Though bolstered considerably by the fully engaged star performance of James McAvoy (whose magnetism was trammeled by the hideous racial politicking of “The Last King of Scotland“), Tom Vaughan‘s Brit college comedy “Starter for 10” is weighed down by something of an identity crisis. An Eighties throwback, not just in its off-the-shoulder pink sweaters and heavily Cured soundtrack, but in its narrative rhythms and willfully wispy teen rom-com resolutions, “Starter for 10″is so dead set on juvenilia that it could only possibly appeal to an adolescent audience – one that by now would undoubtedly be unable to fittingly revel in the film’s generational hallmarks and touchstones.
Not that Vaughan’s feature debut, which tries for effervescent fluff but merely ends up as a rather sticky mess of cotton candy, is without its general pleasures. McAvoy, who throws himself whole-heartedly into the role of Brian, a working-class Essex lad whose self-avowed “passion for knowledge” leads him first to Brighton University and then to the climactic TV quiz extravaganza University Challenge, delivers at least two bang-up scenes, both of which in less skilled hands could have been mannered embarrassments: a prototypical awkward first date with blonde-haired, blue-eyed, lantern-jawed crush Alice (Alice Eve) that segues into a teary reminiscence about Brian’s late father; and a bleary-eyed after-midnight giggle fit brought on by his first experience with pot, while face to face with Alice’s upper-crusty (and nude) parents. It’s well-worn territory, handled more delicately by McAvoy’s impish enthusiasm than David Nicholls‘ by-the-numbers screenwriting (adapted from his own popular novel).
Naturally, Brian will have to choose between two women, both of whom dangerously distract him from his freshman year education: the tiresomely witty and self-effacing Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), a raven-haired, Jewish campus activist saddled with a nasty bit of defense-mechanism humor, who’s both repelled and enlivened by Brian’s disconcerting sincerity, and Alice’s Shiksa goddess, whose sweet nonchalance hides an alarming lack of consideration for Brian’s feelings. Mixed up in all this is a weakly telegraphed Thatcher-era social critique, and naturally a bit of class struggle, exemplified by the clashing between Brian and his vaguely thuggish childhood mate Spencer (“History Boys“‘ cockney bruiser Dominic Cooper), whose distrust of Bristol’s higher social standing (“I’m fine as I am,” he brays from behind his working-class scowl and leather-jacketed strut) only serves to blacken a few eyes for some late-in-the-game scuffles.
For such a monumental triad battle (of wits, sexes, and classes),”Starter for 10″ feels disappointingly insubstantial, and distinctly lacking in the evocative milieu of the period films it seems eager to reconnect with – it’s little more than an eager-to-please, prefab nostalgia trip. Call it My Totally Awesome 80s mix.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and the managing editor of the Criterion Collection.]