Pencil-necked pushover Brian (James McAvoy) is a quiz-obsessed working class kid whose dreams come true when he gets on Bristol’s University Challenge team and meets not one but two generic love interests (Rebecca Hall and Alice Harbinson).
Making a compelling film about University Challenge might sound difficult, but not as difficult as making a contemptible film about it, which Starter for 10 somehow achieves. Every character is easy to hate, whether it’s the insufferable Brian, his immature teammate Alice (Harbinson), his obnoxious school friends (Dominic Cooper and James Corden) or team captain Patrick (Benedict Cumberbatch).
For a film about smart people the characters behave with reliable stupidity, governed by absurd movie logic and casual violence. With both Rebecca and Alice, McAvoy lacks chemistry to an extent which almost feels like a joke at the film’s expense. And plausibility is stretched to breaking point when the University Challenge team has two women on it.
There is far too little of the game being played for fans of the show, and it has an annoying habit of showing fast-cuts of question-less answers so you can’t even play along. The romance which forms the bulk of the film is as predictable as Jeremey Paxman’s withering contempt, as it packs in every university movie cliché. The only surprising moment of the film is when it turns out the silent Asian girl (Elaine Tan) has a name.
Two highlights are Mark Gatiss doing a spot on Bamber Gascoigne impression and Cumberbatch as the only person who manages to wring some laughs out of the witless script. By the final gong you won’t feel like a winner, or even one of the highest scoring losing teams, because Starter For 10 is a universally challenging watch.