Something has to be said for the opening scene of Mindhorn, a show-within-a-movie tale from the United Kingdom. From its plot summary and Netflix trailer, I got this pit feeling that the film would just jump right into footage of the “Mindhorn” TV show, complete with VHS-quality footage of the program it mimics. Don’t get me wrong; we’re eventually given a scene that screams Knight Rider all the way down to that trailer voice guy that thrived in the 1980’s.
But instead, we’re given two and a half minutes of character introduction, as we watch Richard Thorncroft, aka Mindhorn (Julian Barratt) ignore the advice of his stuntman Clive (Simon Farnaby). Thorncroft’s focus is on his co-star Pat Deville (Essie Davis) and the two actors seem to be in love. They schmooze while getting ready to film an important scene. In a scene that’s two and a half minutes, we’re given not only a backstory, but clarity that this is a film that cares for its characters. I admired the scene, and as the rest unraveled, Mindhorn proved to be trustworthy of the opening it promised.
“Mindhorn” was a popular English program from the 1980’s (told you!) featuring Thorncroft playing the title character of a detective sporting a metal eye that can “only see the truth” (that idea still makes me giggle a bit). The show also features the aforementioned Deville and Peter Eastman playing Windjammer the scientist (Steve Coogan). At the height of the show’s popularity, the media made it all about Thorncroft, calling him the next Burt Reynolds. With his ego blown up to degree infinity, he abandoned the show and everyone in his life to pursue acting in Los Angeles. 25 years later, and life have been kind to everyone involved with the show…except Thorncroft. He can’t land an appropriate audition, nor can he lose that bulbous gut. A unique chance for publicity arises for the failed actor in the strangest way. A killer is on the loose, and will only talk to Detective Mindhorn, believing the fictional character is a real-life figure. Seeing this as a chance to bounce back into the spotlight, Thorncroft dawns the Mindhorn gear (in a funny moment that horrifies everyone around him) and completely butchers up the definition of a hero.
What I took away from Mindhorn the most was the appreciation of its brisk pace. The flow of contemporary comedies is something I feel should be looked at more, in terms of when it’s done right and wrong. Any movie that’s too long without something sufficient to say is never a good thing, but when it involves the comedic genre, it’s particularly insufferable. First-time director Sean Foley and writers Barratt & Farnaby seem to know this well, and the flow of Mindhorn like professional. Clocking in at 89 minutes, we’re given an extension of the opening scene in terms of its quality. The promised character development is fleshed out very well, and loveable aspects such as awkward humor are more effective than in recent comedies (looking at you, Handsome). We’re given finely tuned personalities to be concerned for, without the mess of over-indulgence.
While Mindhorn’s pace is its most admirable feature, the obvious crowd pleasing aspect is Barratt’s performance. Even while sharing scenes with the likes of Coogan and Davis (it’s lovely to see the lighter side of The Babadook actor), the one that grabs us the most is Barratt as a self-absorbed has-been. As a familiar friend to British comedy (I wonder if he got the idea for the character during an episode of The Mighty Boosh), his performance is hilarious that reaches near-genius levels of comedic timing, and it’s all done effortlessly (which is saying a lot because that truly is a bulbous gut). There are a few times where he has to carry the load when the film itself hits its lulls. Scenes featuring Thorncroft and his former agent are borderline unpleasant, and some of the dialogue at times feels like it came from the cliché factory. When those moments come forth though, Barratt stands out even more. The flaws of Mindhorn aren’t invisible, but he’s so superb I really didn’t mind when they surrounded him.
I find the recent wave of films featuring washed-up actors welcoming, mainly because they’ve popped up sporadically since the 1950’s (The Country Girl with Bing Crosby comes to mind). Granted, Mindhorn isn’t the next Birdman or The Artist, nor is it really trying to be. Mixing the potential of an actor’s comeback with a murder mystery is high-concept bag indeed, and the vibe it lets out is one of pure fun. It hits the right notes at the right time, and the humor is stimulating. Mindhorn should be watched for the performances the care behind it, and with a short runtime you can do worse. Having said all that though, the Mindhorn tv show looks bloody awful.