STARTER FOR 10
When not sporting the faun's ears he wore in last year's The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, Scottish actor James McAvoy bears a resemblance to "Scrubs" star Zach Braff. Both men use gangly limbs and lopsided faces to convey a boyish, awkward handsomeness, useful in both comedy and angst-ridden drama alike. They seem less like actors than real college boys (at least, the boys in this reviewer's experience)--more likely to seduce with bad puns than sweet nothings.
Lucky for anyone with the pleasure of seeing Starter for 10, McAvoy is more than Zach Braff with an accent--he's better. With pasty skin and a bad '80s haircut, he carries lightly what could have been a cliché-ridden clunker and helps create an utterly winning romantic comedy.
Set for no apparent reason in 1985, the film centers on Brian Jackson (McAvoy), a middle-class guy from an English coastal town whose hunger for knowledge lands him in the rarefied world of Bristol University. There he encounters the usual lot of college trials-the loutish roommates, the sharp-tongued pretty girl and, of course, the ill-judged night of drinking. When he shakes off his hangover by joining the team for "University Challenge"--a real-life "Jeopardy!"-style quiz show popular in the mid-'80s--he finds a whole new set of challenges. He's nearly cut from the team, his captain is an ego-driven nut job and, oh yeah, his teammate is a Claudia Schiffer look-alike with no intention of becoming more than friends. What's a boy to do?
The setup is familiar to anyone with a John Hughes DVD, and though Starter for 10 sticks fairly closely to the classic teen-movie plot (boy has to choose between two girls, loses them both, fights to get the right one back), it still manages to pack some surprises. You know you're in new territory when the hero kisses his dream girl halfway through the film, then immediately afterwards has a stoned, hilarious tête-à-tête with her naked parents. It's obvious how things will end from the first ten minutes, of course, but just like every time you've re-watched Pretty in Pink, it's getting there that's the fun part.
Director Tom Vaughan wisely hands most of the work over to McAvoy, who skillfully takes the film through its more melodramatic moments without sacrificing the comedy. Each of the supporting actors is memorable, and though none does the kind of heavy lifting required of McAvoy, they help create the detailed picture of college life that gives the film its sense of authenticity. Not that any film in which it's OK to fall in love with your best friend can be truly authentic, but what do you expect?
The voiceover narration and slew of "life lessons" toward the end of the movie threaten to wreck it, but Starter for 10 manages not to take itself too seriously, which is more than can be said for anything Zach Braff has done. "Sometimes it's not about having the right answers; sometimes it's about asking the right questions," Brian intones as he dashes across campus to kiss the right girl. (Between the blonde bombshell and the dark-haired best friend, one guess which girl wins.) With Starter for 10, however, it seems best not to ask any questions at all, and just enjoy this delightful '80s throwback while it lasts.
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