A sweet-faced boy from London's working-class South End, circa 1985, Brian Jackson (James McAvoy) arrives at the University of Bristol with his head crammed full of facts. But although he lives by Francis Bacon's dictum that knowledge is power, "Starter for 10's" Brian has yet to experience the kind of lessons that can be learned only by falling squarely on one's face.
Since childhood, Brian's fondest dream has been to appear on the TV quiz show "University Challenge." (The movie's title is the familiar catchphrase that opens each round.) There isn't much competition to join the school's team, but Brian flawlessly fires off answers all the same: battleship Potemkin. The Treaty of Versailles. A form of fungal infection.
Perhaps if he'd been spending less time thumbing through encyclopedias and more time boning up on his coming-of-age comedies, Brian would be better prepared for what lies ahead. He'd know that his blond, impossibly pretty teammate Alice (Alice Eve) is just using him to hone her flirtation skills, and he wouldn't so quickly bypass Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), the shy but equally pretty older girl whose wry sarcasm hides an awkward romanticism equal to his own.
The audience, of course, is unlikely to share Brian's ignorance, which means that once the movie's parameters are established, it's just a matter of waiting for the other shoe to drop, romantically speaking. The course of true love never did run smooth, but here the obstacles are marked miles in advance.
If the journey is familiar, at least the company is good. McAvoy, overshadowed by Forest Whitaker in "The Last King of Scotland," modestly commands the screen, convincingly shedding nearly a decade to play a fumbling 18-year-old with traces of baby fat still in his cheeks. Catherine Tate, best known in the U.K. for her grating sketch-comedy show, brings a dotty melancholy to the role of Brian's widowed mother. And the splendidly named Benedict Cumberbatch handily walks off with his scenes as Brian's team captain, a three-time "University Challenge" loser set on the nerd's equivalent of blood vengeance.
It's a good thing the performances are subtle, since little else about "Starter for 10" is. Director Tom Vaughan has a particularly leaden hand with music cues. Aspiring Lotharios, take note: If you're about to put the moves on a girl, don't use Buzzcocks' "Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn't've)" to set the mood.
It's hard to avoid comparing "Starter for 10" to "The History Boys," another recent British import about the relationship between knowledge and wisdom. The movies share a time period, the suggestive use of New Order songs, and even a pair of cast members: Dominic Cooper and James Corden, who play Brian's high school friends. David Nicholls, who adapted his own novel, would surely come in for a scolding from "Boys' " Mr. Hector for reducing Brian's quest for knowledge to the accumulation of disarticulated facts. If "Starter for 10" spent a little more time in Brian's Romantic poetry seminar, it might observe that love and learning aren't necessarily at odds.
"Starter for 10." MPAA rating: PG-13 for sexual content, language and a scene of drug use. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes. In selected theaters.