Formulaic ‘Starter’ will still win you over
In “Starter for 10,” set in the United Kingdom of the mid-’80s, director Tom Vaughan gets the music right, with a soundtrack heavy on such Brit bands of the time as Echo & the Bunnymen and the Cure. The film does fine with the look of the ’80s, and the signature cultural references.But “Starter for 10” doesn’t capture the hard-nosed, sink-or-swim spirit of the times, represented by the conservative politics of Margaret Thatcher. “Starter for 10” is perhaps the most generous film I’ve ever seen. Far removed from the unforgiving era in which it takes place, the film gives each of its characters break after break. Everyone is likable and well-intentioned; should someone err in character or deed, that is simply an opportunity to demonstrate the capacity for redemption. For its flaws – mainly a skimpy, formulaic plot – you can’t argue with the big-heartedness of the film. That, plus a charming eccentricity rare in romantic comedies, ultimately wins you over.The story in “Starter for 10” aims to get at the atmosphere of the Thatcher-era U.K. Brian Jackson is an underdog of the times – a young man from an economically depressed city, yearning for a chance to improve himself. The odds are slanted: His father has died, his two best friends are going nowhere, and want to bring Brian with them. When Brian sets out for college, at the prestigious Bristol University, he’s got all his possessions in one backpack.
More than material items, Brian has a brain and a desire. The first thing we learn about Brian, in a voice-over, is that for as long as he can remember, he has had a hunger for knowledge. His particular quest for intelligence is manifested in a knack for trivia, a link to his dad, whose only pastime was a TV quiz show.At Bristol, Brian gets his share of abuse from his privileged classmates. His roommates leave him with the shabbiest room in a dingy flat. Worse, the captain of the trivia team is an upper-class snob – think one of the members of the Aryan frat in “Animal House,” only with a British accent – who ignores Brian before finally conceding him a spot on the team as first alternate.But the hazing is only superficial, a plot device. Brian, not exactly a looker, earns the affection of campus hottie Alice (Alice Eve), a luscious blonde – with brains – and a teammate on the trivia squad. Brian also strikes up a friendship – with romantic undertones – with Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), an activist who will never run out of causes to protest. In the ultimate example of director Vaughan’s generosity, Rebecca, too, is a knockout, and smart. We’re supposed to feel bad for this guy?Echoing ’80s films like “Sixteen Candles” and “Pretty in Pink,” Brian struggles to work his way up romantically, and in society, as represented by the trivia team. There is a balance involved; the possibility of forgetting his roots, and thus losing an essential part of himself, is raised when Spencer (Dominic Cooper), his mate from the old neighborhood, comes for a disastrous visit.
On his way up, Brian screws up. At a most inopportune moment, he calls Rebecca “Alice,” dashing both his simmering affair with Rebecca and their friendship. And at the televised finals of the University Challenge trivia show (does it spoil anything to reveal that Brian does, in fact, make the team?), Brian’s minor moral infraction leads to the squad’s defeat.As Brian faces his misdeed, everyone around him demonstrates their inner magnanimity. His mum’s boyfriend, who drives an ice cream truck under the guise of “Mr. Whippy,” proves himself a decent fellow. Even the trivia team captain confesses to being a twit.In the final scene, Brian asks for Rebecca’s forgiveness – “for all his mistakes,” he says. Never mind that his mistakes don’t add up to a hill of beans. Rebecca doesn’t answer the question directly: “You know I forgive you,” is her response. Well, of course. “Starter for 10” is as forgiving as Jesus himself.
“Starter for 10” shows Sunday and Tuesday, April 15 and 17 at the Wheeler Opera House.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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