(Note: as with my vicious, no-holds-barred takedown of the appallingly bad Showdown in Little Tokyo, this Off the Shelf entry is extra special. That’s because it’s also part of the Cinematic Katzenjammer’s Not-So-Secret Santa Swap blogathon, which this time around is a bit more seasonally appropriate. For my swap, I was given the chance to talk about Starter For 10, a movie which did not make me want to pour boiling gravy into my eyes; it’s charming and fun, plus it has all the British people in it. Thanks to the illustrious Nick Powell for setting this whole thing up.)
You’ve probably seen Starter For 10 before. By that I mean you’ve seen the type of film that provides the blueprint for Starter For 10 before, and I’m not referring to whimsical college/teen comedies that end in a climactic battle of epic know-it-all nerdery between rival schools (though Starter For 10 certainly is that), either. More than anything, Tom Vaughan’s film is a “where were they then” film, the kind of movie you watch not necessarily for its content but for the chance to look backwards and see your favorite contemporary actors as they existed before hitting it big, so to speak. Starter For 10 breathes retrospection. That’s its life’s blood.
Ever wondered what James McAvoy was doing before he worshiped Rosario Dawson’s naked glory and helped assemble the X-Men? Have you pondered Benedict Cumberbatch’s existence prior to the world going gaga over his deep, rumbling, dulcet tones (and easily satirized name)? Do you find yourself musing over Rebecca Hall’s career ahead of her appearances in The Town, Iron Man 3, The Awakening, and more, or Charles Dance’s life pre-Game of Thrones? Well, look no further, because you get to see each of these actors and many others – including but not limited to Alice Eve (especially Alice Eve), Dominic Cooper, Catherine Tate (striking quite a different impression than she does in her The Office role), Lindsey Duncan, and John Henshaw (born to play decent, kind, well-meaning men) – operating in various capacities throughout this breezy little delight of a film over the span of ninety minutes.
It needs to be noted that Starter For 10 is slight, and, yes, it is formulaic. It’s every single school comedy about a band of ragtag misfits coming together for the big win (more or less), but set in Britain as it flips between Bristol and Southend-on-Sea; the goal here is to get on TV quiz show University Challenge, a lifelong ambition held by our hero, Brian Jackson (McAvoy). As in most such cases of blueprint, by-the-numbers storytelling, it’s the cast that really give Starter For 10 its own unique identity, though its 1980s background and soundtrack – featuring the likes of The Cure, The Buzzcocks, Tears For Fears, The Smiths, and Echo & the Bunnymen – certainly aids in that regard. It’s so eighties without ever being painfully aware of its era.
Setting, of course, comprises one of the many defining elements running through the movie’s plot; this is a tale of working-class youth rising above a predetermined and impoverished station to achieve undreamed of heights of intellectual, academic success. It’s Good Will Hunting light (very, very light), not totally absent of pathos but certainly with a far more blunted edge. The biggest hurdle Brian has to overcome is his tragic tendency to act like a total idiot at the least opportune times possible, though Vaughan (adapting his own novel of the same name) plays with this well enough that it offers a reasonable throughline instead of serving as nothing more than a repeat gag.
But the truth is that no matter what pleasures of narrative Vaughan’s story might offer, you’re not watching Starter For 10 for anything other than its names. Who doesn’t want to see Cumberbatch get into a random slap fight with Cooper? (Hell, this whole thing could just be called Cumberbatch Gifs: The Movie.) Who doesn’t want to see Dance stride into a dark-lit kitchen in naught but his birthday suit, looking as regal as can be despite his unavoidable nakedness? (I’m also not ashamed to say that the dude is fit. If I look half as good as he does when I turn 60, I’ll consider myself lucky.) How is watching McAvoy, a gifted, classy actor, behave like a total spazz not rousing entertainment? We have such an established image of these performers in our minds that seeing them in these stock roles is a form of amusement unto itself.
If there’s an area where the film stumbles, it’s in tropes; there’s nothing wrong with archetypes, but Vaughan treats his female troupe members almost like cardboard cutouts. Eve exists simply to break Brian’s heart, lead him on, and eventually waltz around in her underwear (though at least there’s a plot reason for her to do so; Star Trek Into Darkness‘ screenwriters should have taken notes), while Hall’s character conforms to the whims of the script at the drop of a hat. Starter For 10 is all about Brian, and it’s all about his growth as a young man struggling with his central identity, but that doesn’t mean the women who serve as foils to his personality have to be this bland and this robbed of agency. They avail themselves well enough, particularly Hall, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that they deserve better.
None of this ruins anything, mind, and again, nobody’s watching this for anything more than the thrill of seeing now-established (or at least better-known; Dance, Duncan, and Tate especially all had extensive careers before popping up here) talents back before they hit their stride. It’s a fun novelty experience; you might not have known that you want to pleasantly kill an hour and a half by watching Cumberbatch chew out cleaning ladies and unwittingly deflect errant headbutts with all the pomp and flair of a snooty Tory, but you do.
(The full list of Not So Secret Santa reviews can be found here.)