All hail Julian Barratt, star of this exceptional – and exceptionally silly – British character comedy.
How many times do you think people walk up to the actor Julian Barratt in the street and say, ‘Oh hey, you’re Howard Moon!’ or, ‘Are you Howard Moon?’ or, ‘Do Howard Moon!’ or variations of the above? Probably rather a few. To quote Bart Simpson quoting George Burns, “show business is a hideous bitch goddess,” and Mindhorn feels like Barratt’s wry riposte to all those loitering Howard Moon superfans.
Yet instead of digging up the desiccated corpse of The Mighty Boosh, he returns triumphantly with Simon Farnaby as a co-writer and theatre director Sean Foley behind the camera to deliver a parochial and nostalgic feature comedy which asks questions about what it means to trade on age-old fame. It’s a film which harks back to a vintage era of British TV comedy, particularly those shows concerning the lives of small-minded male has-beens like I’m Alan Partridge, Bottom, The Office and Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace. But it also offers a playful commentary on the current yen for resurrecting the sitcom titans of yore for an inevitable big screen cash-in. This is like a spin-off, but where the original property doesn’t actually exist. And it’s all the better for it.
The title refers to an apocryphal shlock ’80s TV serial in the vein of Bergerac or Shoestring which is set in the leafy toy town that is the Isle of Man. Barratt’s paunchy, unreconstructed thesp, Richard Thorncroft, stars as a tan-jacketed, Capoeira-wielding gumshoe who, with the help of a surgically-implanted retinal implant, is able to “literally see the truth”. The film dives straight into a typical shooting set-up, with the cowardly Mindhorn brushing aside his chipper stunt man (Farnaby, hilariously playing a Dutch man for no reason) to lock lips with his female co-star and paramour, Patricia DeVille (Essie Davies). It’s typical high-concept macho guff, but recreated with such straight-arrow fondness that it’s clear the film is more than a kitsch parody. The antiquated attitudes and crude gender politics are subtly nestled in the dialogue rather than paraded about with self-satisfied abandon.
A serial killer is on the loose and he’ll only deal with Mindhorn, and so the local Manx constabulary put a call through to Thorncroft’s dingy flat in Walthamstow. He decides to take a break from shilling orthopaedic socks to step once more into the plastic shoes of the one character he truly loved, but abandoned for the false promise of Hollywood riches. Throughout the film, Thorncroft falls in and out of love with his iconic creation, stooping lower than ever before before being spurred on to resurrect his fortunes. The plot is silly and contrived, but it works considering the type of low-grade, strictly formulaic shows it references. It’s also pretty funny that Mindhorn’s exotic superpower is never used nor mentioned during the entire film, showing it up as the zero-value “cool” detail that it is.
The film works because you get the impression that Barratt and Farnaby sunk a lot of time into getting the details right. Still, the female characters are given short shrift – Jessica Barden and Andrea Riseborough sadly have very little to do and no good lines. And the film ends rather suddenly, as if the money suddenly ran out. But considering the hokey nature of the source material, even the ragged edges work in the film’s favour.
The final word, however, must go to Barratt who delivers a pantheon-level comic performance – it’s astounding just the sheer number of funny lines he nails, as well as the amount of dry exposition he’s able to funny up. And it never feels like he’s pushing too hard for effect or debasing himself for the requirements of the story. The flouncing, pretentious ghost of jazz warrior Howard Moon is present, but Thorncroft is a grotesque who you finally come to empathise with – there’s a hard earned humanity at his core. Fingers crossed that Mindhorn is embraced with the long-haul fanboy fervour that something like Shaun of the Dead received.
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