A Transatlantic Survival Guide
by Jane Walmsley
"Starter For 10"
Actor James McAvoy is the impressive thing here. Take him out of this romantic comedy equation at a Brit university well above his working class station in life, and you'd have a sum of zero. Not that he's a math genius. His freshman (Brian) is a trivia terror and quickly makes a name for himself on the campus quiz show team which is in no position to put class ahead of merit.
His acceptance on the team puts him in daily contact with waspy blond siren, Alice Harbinson (Alice Eve), a girl used to being spoiled (who ever said a vixen can't be an egghead?), which adds to the attractions of his natural tendencies. The rest of the team is a boatload of eccentricities.
If Brian is ever seen in an actual class for learning, I missed it.
The importance of a competitive edge is for the "University Challenge," ("Starter for 10 points") an actual semester game show that's been raging for years in England and has become part of the culture if not a hit show on the telly. Which shows the dissimilarity with our own smaller inclination to engage with things intellectual, and the difficult sell this subject might be for a movie in the colonies.
However, if the drama of a knowledge contest fails to put this pic in the winner's circle on home turf, the triangular romantic elements of the plot might inject enough stimulation to cause some favorable traffic at the box office. We do, after all, have our share of romantics.
Brian isn't much into politics and, certainly, is no activist, but when he meets dedicated Rebecca Epstein (Rebecca Hall) his interest has little to do with marches and protests. Though that's her idea of how to spend her campus time, she has the great virtue of not trying to push it on him.
But he's under the spell of the class blond and this half of his romantic and sexual yearnings is put on hold while he succumbs entirely to the more magnetic impulses that Alice is busy cultivating.
McAvoy combines personality with an animated vitality and an intuitive understanding of what's needed to make a story work even when it's not all there on paper. Forest Whitaker might have turned in an Academy Award-worthy performance as Idi Amin in "King of Scotland" but it was McAvoy in a fictional role that kept the film bio on its unsteady dramatic feet.
Similarly here, as he expertly juggles the girlfriends, the team demands, and his mother's changing needs, with all the breakdowns, goofs and disappointments that swamp him. Never too much for this versatile actor with his seemingly effortless performance toolbox that's universal enough to break some barriers to British alien customs and tastes in humor--a virtuoso in the making.
Tom Hanks produced.
~~ Jules Brenner