Director: Sean Foley
Stars: Julian Barratt, Essie Davis, Andrea Riseborough
Conjured like a brain bomb by Simon Farnaby and nurtured into a nutty mushroom cloud with the aid of Julian Barratt, Mindhorn is a new oddball laugh machine squatting in UK cinemas offering a decidedly British alternative in the post Oscar-season playing field. It’s something of a relief amid all the mid-tier costume dramas and sub-par B-list crime thrillers that usually tumble out around this time of year (isn’t there something out this week with Orlando Bloom in it? I mean honestly).
Barratt stars as Richard Thorncroft, the one-time star of the eponymous (and sadly entirely fictional) 80’s regional detective series. But, alas, his glory days are far behind him. With his paunch, his toupée and his dwindling résumé of commercial ties, Thorncroft’s career is in dire need of a revival (at least, his his eyes). Fortunately(?) a deranged killer on the loose in his former ‘stomping grounds’ – the Isle of Man – might just provide the opportunity he’s been looking for. Suspect-with-a screw-loose Paul Melly (Russell Tovey) will only negotiate with Detective Mindhorn, so Thorncroft is drafted in by the police to help put the matter to rest. With his bionic eyepatch (housing a lie-detector, supposedly), his orange roll neck sweater and a penchant for an Americano with hot milk, Thorncroft is on the case. And who knows, maybe this is just the chance he needs to reconnect with old flame and former co-star Patricia Deville (Essie Davis).
It’s a silly enough set-up to draw intrigue, and you’d do well to follow that instinct, as within lurks a modestly scaled but rewarding comedy film. It’s a fine showcase for Barratt’s honed brand of loser exploration. Thorncroft doesn’t feel a million miles away from his Mighty Boosh alter ego Howard Moon; both men teeter on the brink of crisis, their inflated egos a wafer-thin ham slice away from admitting their own crippling mediocrity. Middle aged male inadequacy zings throughout Mindhorn, be it Thorncroft himself, his bronzed former stuntman Clive (Farnaby) who has shacked up with Patricia (but who’s more interested in the gardening) or Mindhorn spin-off merchant Peter Eastman (Steve Coogan). Everywhere you look there’s a wispy male ego mere millimetres from catastrophe.
These sad figures are inherent British character types, their sad bravado all the more transparent for how poorly they try to camouflage themselves. Doubling-down on the Britishness (yeah, that can be a word) of proceedings are the knowing winks to the glut of regional detective shows that proved so durable in the halcyon days of VHS (Bergerac gets more than a couple of nods). Mindhorn has picked its cultural reference points with admirable precision, potentially making this film a tough sell overseas. While I’m sure it’s creators would be happy for a bit of international success, the closed-ranks aspirations of this endeavour make it all the more enjoyable for those who recognise the reference points. Here’s a comedy film that seems made first and foremost to please its creators. Fortunately, this is one of those instances where joining them in the laugh is an easy task.
Chiefly Mindhorn trades in slapstick pratfalls, sitcom-friendly gags and, increasingly, a joyful dollop of surrealism. A gag involving a plasticine telephone receiver is placed early on and doesn’t quite generate the laugh it deserves. But it serves a couple of further purposes. For one, it lays the groundwork for another gag much later in the film, but it also serves as litmus test or palette cleanser for the level of bonkers laying in wait in the film’s doolally third act. Mindhorn ups the silliness factor every half an hour or so, reaching a gleeful peak when Thorncroft and his fictional alter ego become trapped in the same body (a literal manifestation of an internal struggle that I don’t dare to spoil any further). From this point on especially, Mindhorn delivers on its early promise.
The central story is nonsense, obviously, but spinning any kind of actual sense out of this yarn is probably an exercise in futility. A lot of the jokes that appear here have the waft of the familiar about them, but it’s a sort of next-level meta-familiarity, as though Barratt and Farnaby are sending up the very tropes of British comedies. Mindhorn is at once a part and aware of a daft and idiosyncratic tradition. While it has some cheeky things to say about masculine fragility, Mindhorn exists chiefly to improve your day. It’s telling that, come the final showdown, Foley’s film doesn’t hang around for a second. There’s no coda, no wrap-up. We’re out to credits like a bolting horse. There’s no eleventh hour lesson here, other than the revelation that 90 minutes spent with a thoroughly silly movie is sometimes a really good idea.