It is the traditional order of things that movies set in college, and also movies that are set in the mid-1980s and scored entirely with New Wave singles, will be high-pitched and manic. So I do admire the British rom-com Starter for 10 in this way, at least: it possesses a low-key, laid-back energy that captures the existential being-ness that I for one encountered in school, rather than the endless hedonistic fantasias customary to the genre.
The attentive reader will recall that the phrase "low-key" is something I only trot out when I'm looking for a polite euphemism for "goddamn boring." So perhaps it would be well for me to rephrase my first paragraph: Starter for 10 is goddamn boring. Ah, isn't it good to be honest!
I don't just mean it has a boring story, although it sort of does, but rather that the whole project, head to tail, is completely lifeless. I do not know this Tom Vaughan who directed, but I can say with certainty he did not enter the motion picture industry out of fiery passion to stretch the boundaries of the medium. Maybe he discovered that the long set-up times on a film set make it a good place to take naps. I'm really not sure. All I have to go on is this, his debut film, and it says to me that he does not think much about what makes movies fun to watch.
Having gone to film school, I should be capable of more specific and astute commentary than what I'm about to say, but: the film looks tired. It's lit that way, the camera moves that way, and the sets have all been designed that way. There is an utter lack of visual energy at every turn, like every single take in the final cut was the last shot on that day of shooting.
The scene where this becomes impossible to ignore occurs early on (unfortunately), during a theoretically raging party with pulsing lights and New Order booming on the soundtrack. I tell you this, my dear readers, I would have called it an impossibility for any scene in a movie set to "Blue Monday" to feel airless, but I would have been altogether wrong. In part, mind you, this is because "Blue Monday" has been woven into the soundtrack so quietly, and is so fuzzy. But even so there are many things it would have to overcome: a shockingly tiny number of extras, ugly-ass colored lights that strobe too slowly, claustrophobic compositions.
And, it must be said, the actors, who (probably as a result of being surrounded by all of this sleepiness) are uniformly distant and flat. This is particularly discouraging in the case of the film's lead, James McAvoy, who was so recently so brilliant in The Last King of Scotland, holding his own against the phenomenally over-the-top Forest Whitaker. It doesn't help one little bit that the 27-year-old (now 28) McAvoy looks far too old to play his 19-year-old character, but between the overall anemia plaguing the movie, and probably McAvoy's knowledge that he's on a track for better things than tossed-off romantic comedies, he gives no spark, unless it is that his eyes are unnaturally clear blue that looks arresting even when the rest of his performance is a dull slog. The rest of the largely unknown cast doesn't have the opportunity to be disappointing, but that doesn't make them any good. I won't go through them one by one, because they all have the same problem: there's simply no energy anywhere in Starter for 10, and while none of the performers are inherently bad (I've seen all but one of the leads in at least one other project), none of them are good enough to generate heat where there isn't any.
It's a huge shame, because the script, which David Nicholls adapted from his own novel, is actually sweet and cute and a little amusing. "But wait," you cry, "didn't you earlier call the story 'sort of boring?' Explain." Well, it's predictable in the extreme. And it evinces little to no understanding of human psychology. These are both boring things for a screen story.
But for a college-set romantic comedy, it hits more than it misses. It concerns the arrival of Brian Jackson at Bristol University, where he wishes to learn cleverness, join the Quiz Team and get laid, in approximately that order. Yada yada yada, he ends up as the hinge of a triangle involving an angry feminist secular Jew (Rebecca Hall) and a hottie on the quiz team (Alice Eve). Life lessons and coming-of-age, mistakes are made and corrected, lots of The Cure is played.
For all its efficient hacksmanship, there are actually some very sweet notes in Brian's interactions with the girls, that even the actors' lack of vitality can't quite smother. It's much more delicate and much less sex-soaked than an American film in the same style, and for that I suppose I am thankful, even if that delicacy means that the film drifts into a soporific mess.
The one thing that really, really makes Starter for 10 a curiosity, and goes a long way to explaining its missteps, is the fact that it's not properly a British film. Oh, there's some BBC money in it, but this film was financed largely in America, and so we have the bizaare sight of a British team making an American comedy. With that in mind, it's altogether less surprising that the tone is so drained: this could never hit the heights of e.g. a great Richard Curtis comedy because it was being directed at the wrong audience from the ground up. There are so many British trappings in the screenplay, and all of them confusingly expressed: that must be why. It's much easier to understand why the cast and crew were having so little fun making the movie if they were ultimately not even sure what country they were making it for.