The premise of Mindhorn is simple enough that it almost feels familiar: a washed-up actor known for playing a detective on television is given new purpose when he must slip into the role again to help the police catch a murder suspect who believes the detective was real. Combining aspects of Austin Powers, Hot Fuzz and The World’s End, it’s the kind of project I could see being watered-down and remade in ten or so years for an American audience (see Death at a Funeral and The Office) starring the likes of Adam Sandler (or Jeff Bridges, if we’re going a classier route). This assessment isn’t a knock on Mindhorn, which is an enjoyable film in fits and spurts—merely an observation, perhaps, of how effective this type of character study is, and the recognizable horror of watching someone realize they have become a relic.
The movie is billed as a comedy, and it certainly has plenty of guffaw- and chortle-inducing moments and sequences scattered throughout the narrative, which follows Richard Thorncroft (Julian Barratt), the aforementioned waning star, as he struggles to let go of his one big role: the titular detective, Mindhorn. After playing this womanizing detective with a lie-detector implanted in his eye, Richard has since lost his voluminous sex-symbol hair, put on a good bit of weight, and has been reduced to doing commercials for products no one wants, despite his best efforts. The call from the police offers him the opportunity to become Mindhorn once again—this time to assist in the solving of a real crime!—and so he returns to the Isle of Man, the setting and location of the original show, where he reconnects with the former coworkers, friends and lovers he left behind to go (unsuccessfully) pursue bigger and better things.
Yet Mindhorn, on the whole, isn’t much of a humorous story. Indeed, it functions almost as a warning against the dangers of unchecked nostalgia, disguising a rather sad story with the veneer of broad comedy as Richard desperately tries to stop his slide into obscurity and mockery. Once on the Isle of Man, Richard learns that perhaps he has not been remembered as well as he would have liked. He attempts to rekindle a romance with Pat (Essie Davis), the former co-star and lover whom he literally abandoned while on an errand twenty-five years prior, only to find that she ended up getting together with Richard’s stunt double Clive (Simon Farnaby, who co-wrote the screenplay). He also learns, with no small degree of surprise and disappointment, that his former manager Moncrieff (Richard McCabe) is now a slob living in a trailer, and that Peter Eastman (Steve Coogan), a Mindhorn actor who went on to have a more successful spinoff show, is now living in an opulent mansion surrounded by beautiful women, and has no time for a has-been like Richard. How the tables have turned since Richard was the one living it up in London, while the rest of his former life simply moved on without him, neatly closing the gap his absence created.
The murder- and crime-solving aspects of Mindhorn are almost tangential (and thus, the least interesting part of the movie’s narrative), as they are really only significant for the thematic issues they raise. A key scene late in the film nicely illustrates the film’s take on excessively living in the past: Richard awakes to find that he has been literally forced back into his old role, as the murder suspect Paul (Russell Tovey), who will only cooperate with “Detective Mindhorn,” has stuffed him into a facsimile of his old costume, sprayed him with tanner, and literally glued a wig on his balding head. Paul (who, of course, turns out to be a patsy) refuses to believe that Mindhorn isn’t real, and when the real actor who played the role fails to meet Paul’s expectations of Mindhorn, Paul physically alters Richard to be able to re-occupy this position in his life—to fit in with his nostalgic fantasy. Perhaps I’m getting too zeitgeisty here, but in a media landscape where nostalgia seems to be king, it certainly seems like Mindhorn is offering a sly rebuttal of this trend.
Barratt gives a charismatic lead performance, using those chiseled cheekbones and glorious mustache in concert with uncommonly sad eyes to make Richard Thorncroft both recognizable and worthy of empathy, despite his arrogance and stupidity. The rest of the cast is also strong, though largely overshadowed by Barratt’s magnetism. If Steve Coogan, who also produced, wants to continue spending large chunks of his time in very small, brutally funny roles in comedy movies (see: The Other Guys, In the Loop, and technically Hot Fuzz), that’s fine by me. Kenneth Branagh, shockingly, cameos as himself in one early scene where he auditions Richard for a Hamlet adaption—it’s nice to see he has a sense of humor about still being the go-to Shakespeare guy. It’s clear, in any case, that Mindhorn is a labor of love for the cast and crew, and while it’s not as memorable as the comedies it recalls, its attention to more serious underlying themes is commendable.
Director: Sean Foley
Writer: Julian Barratt, Simon Farnaby
Starring: Julian Barratt, Essie Davis, Andrea Riseborough
Release Date: A Netflix Original film
Deborah Krieger is an arts writer and aspiring curator. She studied art history, film, and German at Swarthmore College, and has written for PopMatters, Bust, The Mary Sue and Bitch Flicks. She blogs, and can be found on Twitter and Instagram.