Starter For 10 – Revenge Of The Nerd

By Scott Martin

Starter for 10, UK / USA, 2006

Directed by Tom Vaughan

Starter for 10 is a British/American film directed by Tom Vaughan from a screenplay by David Nicholls, adapted from his own novel Starter for Ten. The oddest thing about a film like Starter for 10 is that it seems to be almost completely pointless until the last thirty minutes or so, and the most unfortunate thing about the project is that the first hour is almost completely alienating. This isn’t the type of film where the audience is required to root for anyone in particular, nor are we given much of a climax to look forward to. We follow a young college student in England in 1985 as he enters Bristol University and attempts to find his place and enter a quiz show club, in which one does their best to win championships on television. We follow him through bum friends, a failed and unrealistic attempt at a relationship, and a conventional attempt at knowing everything.

The good news is that James McAvoy is watchable enough to excuse most of that. The bad news is that even though McAvoy is a watchable actor, of some considerable skill, the film itself is hollow and flatter than paper. It’s peppered with calm and collected performances, but that and a bad screenplay don’t make a good movie. Make no mistake, Starter for 10 is enjoyable, albeit conventional and formulaic. However, it’s great performances from Benedict Cumberbatch, Rebecca Hall, and McAvoy himself that magically make the film worth watching more than once, even if you just want to catch all the reaction shots from Cumberbatch that you might have missed the first time; as with everything else in which he appears, he’s a complete joy.

The film focuses on Brian Jackson (McAvoy) whom we first meet as a young lad watching TV quiz shows with his father (James Gaddas) and mother (Catherine Tate) over a trio of portable dinners. Obviously, being all of seven years old, Brian wants to know everything and be just like Dad, a mountain of knowledge himself. Years later, after Brian’s father dies, he attends Bristol University with the intention of honoring his father’s memory by grasping all the knowledge he can. He’s a wealth of it, without even trying it seems, but most of his character is built around the gaining of that knowledge. Part of the film’s problem is that it all seems to come so easily to Brian; there isn’t any drama there.

I remember reading in one review of the film that it’s a sort of “homage to John Hughes” and is a “coming of age story.” It is, in some ways, a coming of age story, but I have trouble seeing it as an homage to Hughes. There’s none of his magic; it’s mostly just pandering. In a film about the power of intelligence, shouldn’t the audience be treated as intelligent? We shouldn’t really be spoon-fed plot points, especially when most of them aren’t that interesting to begin with.

There are some pluses: the ’80s soundtrack is spot on, and there are a handful of performances that keep the film from drowning in its own contrived state of being. Boiled down, a film about trivia doesn’t need to be trivial. It’s important to note that the film’s story isn’t a build up to the quiz show; it’s about what happens on a daily basis if you’re Brian Jackson. I think part of the problem is that Brian Jackson isn’t someone that anyone might want to be. He’s a waifish Brit with a goofy haircut who alienates people simply by being himself. If this were a Woody Allen film, that might suffice as a character, but this isn’t, and it doesn’t.

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