Friday, March 09, 2007

Starter for Ten - Movie Review

Starter for Ten (2006)
When the film genre of “Romantic Comedy” died, roughly after Woody Allen updated, dissected and metastasized it with “Annie Hall”, Hollywood should have simply accepted its demise and thrown away any script that came through its marbled archways that contained the words: “Love”, “Sweet” and “Dogs”. Seriously, kids. As avid film lovers of a tired genre that gave us so much enjoyment over the years, every film we have seen in the past twenty five years that attempts to demonstrate the cutesiness of every “meet cute” ends up becoming a steaming pile of celluloid manure. Either the “romantic” aspects are blatantly devoid of star chemistry, or the “comedy” side is a blithering assortment of pratfalls and replayed unfunny misunderstandings. “Oh, you said ‘Wanna have dinner with my parents?’”, “That’s so funny, I heard ‘Dress up in biker drag!”, “My mistake”.

So, when we were forced to go and sit through yet another “Romantic Comedy” which had the balls no less than to place it’s storyline in the early 1980s, we were forced to take five Xanax and two Vodka Gimlets in order to gird our critical loins. Well, either the pills helped considerably or we are softening up in our old age. (We’re sure it’s the former, and never the latter!) “Starter for 10” is a darling little British import that works for two reasons: James McAvoy as the young brainy lead, and the young semi-brainy script by David Nicholls based on his novel.

We meet Brian at a very early age, as a clever child who daydreams about the University Challenge quiz show found on the telly as he tries his best to outguess the contestants. His father eggs him on supportively as his mother smiles in slightly bemused indifference. When next we meet Brian, his beloved Dad has passed away and he is about to embark on his university career where he is sure he will discover like minded individuals who care more about culture, social issues and the all important pursuit of trivia that dominates his desires. If he is forced to leave his working class mates behind, well, such is life for a lad too clever to be held down by his social setting.

Brian does indeed go to college, and quickly discovers that while he is not alone in the pursuit of knowledge, he may be alone for the rest of his life if he doesn’t learn to speak to members of the opposite sex. Enter Rebecca Epstein, a bohemian jewish lass with a penchant for picketing against the world’s injustices. And Alice Harbinson, the embodiment of the upper crust British doll whose resemblance to a young Christie Brinkley does not go unnoticed by the director, Tom Vaughan.

We are introduced to Alice via a slow motion shot meant to display her best assets, her ability to toss her hair from side to side with passionate abandon. She has entered Brian’s life in the most unlikely of settings, his audition to become one of the University Challenge contestants. An audition that should either have you rolling in the aisles or tapping your nails on the theatre seat in front of you depending on either your age, moviegoing experience, or susceptibility for clichéd entrances.

Anyone who has sat through the John Hughes oeuvre from the actual 1980s will not be surprised by any thing in this film. They might be spurred into coughing up a long misplaced memory or two, but not surprised. So wait, did we enjoy this film? And if so, when does it start demonstrating its alleged “brainy” quality. Well, the simple truth is that his film is carried along at a leisurely entertaining pace by the charms of its leading man, James McAvoy. After his wonderfully spot on dramatic turn in “The Last King of Scotland”, the last thing we expected was this!

Completely believable as a young dope, determined to make the most of his university experience until his hormones get the better of him, James McAvoy skirts across the lumpier aspects of the film: brainy girl versus blonde beauty, discovering you’ve outgrown your working class background and chums, etc. Basically, every cliché we’ve sat through before in any coming of age comedy. We don’t doubt for a minute that Brian will wakeup one morning to realize who his real true love is; we simply must sit through the preordained scenes. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned in the past one hundred years of moviegoing, its that once must look for the differences within a tired genre in order to grab hold of any cinematic enjoyment.

Starter for 10” has no breakthrough moments in direction, script, cinematography or design. While it relies on a buoyant period soundtrack consisting of choice cuts from the eighties prepackaged cold meats section of The Cure, Psychedelic Furs, Buzzcocks, Yaz, Kate Bush, Echo & The Bunnymen, The Style Council, The Undertones and The Smiths; it knows enough to use them sparingly and not merely for a frosting effect.

Yes, we wish there had not been the inevitable “dress up in drag” moment of confusion, or the painfully unfunny scene where Brian bumps into Alice’s parents in a pot infused haze in their kitchen and surprise of surprises – Alice’s parents walk around their house butt naked! (Please. This was by far the clumsiest moment in the script, in particular since the parents were played by the far too talented for this slight a fare duo: Charles Dance and Lindsay Duncan. Although, both middle aged Brits acquit themselves quite nicely in the dropping trou department! Especially Mr. Dance! Was that a bit of CGI, or is he really that well toned at the age of sixty?)

But at this point in the game, one has to expect one in any Romantic Comedy. What does come as a pleasant surprise is the script actually regards its principle players as characters, not just caricatures . . . for the most part. Alice and Rebecca are blissfully given moments within the confines of the genre to break out of their tired molds. The “dumb Blonde” is certainly no dummy and the “bohemian chick” is hardly flighty or as neurotic as we have seen in the past.
Starter for 10” fulfills its intentions quite nicely when it focuses on Brian’s relationships. We enjoyed the thoughtful scenes where Brian gets to actually converse with Alice and Rebecca alternately. There was a nice quality of not rushing the proceedings that actually drew us into the story. His scenes with his best mate, Spencer played with the right amount of working class bravado by Dominic Cooper were another highlight.

We only wish the film had made better use of the prodigious comedic talents of Catherine Tate who portrays Brian’s Mum, Julie Jackson. Saddled with the unfunny role as the mousy widow who decides to venture into another relationship late in the game – she has precious little to do besides look concerned and flustered. One wishes the director and writer had watched a few episodes of Catherine Tate’s sketch comedy program to see how it is possible to simultaneously emulate and lampoon such ignoble institutions as higher education, the working class and comic misunderstandings.

While the routine fumbles culled from a million previous “Romantic Comedies” do not come across well, it is in the grounded and wonderfully etched performance by James McAvoy that sets this film apart. We just wish the director had been brave or quick witted enough to avoid the clichéd pitfalls and venture out a tad more. We feel we can still recommend this film, since the few scenes that do work well provide a glimmer of what could have been. Yikes. Not the most shimmering endorsement, but there you have it. Bless you all!

Directed by Tom Vaughan
Written by David Nicholls, based on his novel

James McAvoy as Brian Jackson
Alice Eve as Alice Harbinson
Rebecca Hall as Rebecca Epstein
Catherine Tate as Julie Jackson
Dominic Cooper as Spencer
Benedict Cumberbatch as Patrick
Charles Dance as Michael Harbinson
Lindsay Duncan as Rose Harbinson
Elaine Tan as Lucy Chang
James Corden as Tone
Ian Bonar as Colin
Joseph Friend as Young Brian
James Gaddas as Martin Jackson
Mark Gatiss as Bamber Gascoigne
John Henshaw as Des
Ben Willbond as Julian

Cinematography by Ashley Rowe
Film Editing by Jon Harris and Heather Persons
Original Music by Blake Neely
Costume Design by Charlotte Morris
Production Design by Sarah Greenwood
Art Direction by Nick Gottschalk
Set Decoration by Katie Spencer



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