|Requiem for a Braniac|
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 a place and enter a quiz show club, one who 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, 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. But, with performances from Benedict Cumberbatch, Rebecca Hall, and McAvoy himself, the film magically becomes 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. Like in everything else he's in, he's a complete joy.
The film focuses on Brian Jackson - we see him first as a young lad watching TV quiz shows with his father and mother over a trio of portable dinners. Obviously, being all of seven years old, Brian (McAvoy) 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 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 effect, a coming of age story. But, I have trouble seeing this as an homage to John Hughes. None of the magic, it's mostly just pandering. With 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 80's 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 waif Brit with a goofy haircut who alienates people simply by being him. If this were a Woody Allen film, that might suffice as a character. But, this isn't, and it doesn't.