Sunday, May 14, 2017

On Netflix: MINDHORN (2017)

(UK - 2017)

Directed by Sean Foley. Written by Julian Barratt and Simon Farnaby. Cast: Julian Barratt, Andrea Riseborough, Essie Davis, Steve Coogan, Russell Tovey, Simon Farnaby, Richard McCabe, David Schofield, Nicholas Farrell, Harriet Walter, Kenneth Branagh, Simon Callow, Jessica Barden, Robin Morrissey, Jordan Long. (Unrated, 88 mins)

It succumbs to predictability when the comedy gives way to formulaic action in the third act, but the British-made Netflix acquisition MINDHORN, starring and co-written by THE MIGHTY BOOSH's Julian Barratt, gets its share of big laughs from an inspired premise. Barratt is Richard Thorncroft, a washed-up Isle of Man-born actor best known for a late '80s/early '90s TV series called MINDHORN, In it, Thorncroft starred as Bruce Mindhorn, an MI-5 agent who was captured and held prisoner at a secret compound in the outer regions of Siberia, where Soviet scientists replaced his left eye with a cybernetic optical lie detector, "allowing him to literally see the truth!" according to the show's dead-on INCREDIBLE HULK-type voiceover intro ("It's Truth Time!" Mindhorn declares when he nabs a perp). MINDHORN was a big hit for a few years but Thorncroft did a poor job of handling his fame. After releasing an album with the minor hit single "You Can't Handcuff the Wind" (sample lyric: "It's like tryin' to put thunder in jail!"), the show's popularity waned, ratings plummeted, his relationship with leading lady Patricia Deville (Essie Davis of THE BABADOOK) fell apart, and he had a very public meltdown when he appeared falling-down drunk on a live talk show, trash-talking co-star Peter Easterman (Steve Coogan), who played Mindhorn's sidekick Windjammer. Upon MINDHORN's cancellation, Easterman became a bigger star than Thorncroft ever was thanks to the spinoff WINDJAMMER, currently in its 16th season and still the most-watched show on British TV. Thorncroft's fall from grace continued when he ditched his loyal agent Geoffrey Moncrief (Richard McCabe) and went off to Hollywood when a megabudget producer promised to make him the next Burt Reynolds. The movie bombed and Thorncroft crashed and burned, and he's been scrounging for work and licking his wounds in London in the 20 years since. He's still trying to stage a comeback, still sucking in his gut and throwing on a Mindhorn toupee to cover his now-bald head, with his latest agent (Harriet Walter) unable to find any publisher interest in his autobiography (Easterman has just published his third memoir), while his most prominent recent gigs have found him coasting on what little MINDHORN notoriety he still has in TV commercials endorsing man-girdles and orthopedic socks.

After a disastrous audition with Kenneth Branagh where he humiliates himself pretending he and Branagh go back decades ("Kenny B!"), Thorncroft is about to throw in the towel, but he gets an unexpected offer from an Isle of Man police precinct: escaped lunatic Paul Melly (Russell Tovey), who makes squawking sounds and calls himself "The Kestral," is the prime suspect in a recent murder, but he refuses to speak with Baines (Andrea Riseborough), the detective on the case. Instead, MINDHORN superfan Melly, who thinks the character is real, will only talk to Agent Mindhorn, which leads the cops to hire Thorncroft to once again essay his signature role to help capture "The Kestral." Of course, at-an-all-time-low Thorncroft can't help but become a braying jackass and all-around egomaniac now that he thinks he's in-demand once more, and he very nearly screws up the entire investigation before accidentally helping apprehend Melly. But after reconnecting with Patricia, now a crusading reporter, and learning she ran off with his old stunt double Clive Parnevik (co-writer Simon Farnaby), Thorncroft is once more despondent until evidence surfaces that Melly has been framed for the murder, with Geoffrey having the proof on a VHS tape. When Geoffrey turns up dead and Thorncroft is implicated, he and Melly escape and set out to clear both of their names. Thorncroft's bigger concern seems to be his career, which, after a brief resurgence of interest thanks to his role in capturing Melly, immediately goes back into the shitter following an escalating confrontation with the gloating Easterman that goes viral when Thorncroft takes a swing at his former co-star and instead punches an innocent female bystander.

It should come as no surprise as MINDHORN (which counts Ridley Scott among its producers) reaches its conclusion that getting to the bottom of the case is key to Thorncroft's personal and professional redemption, as are rekindling his romance with Patricia and getting the idiotic Clive out of the picture. MINDHORN is consistently amusing but works best in its early scenes, especially its establishment of the current sad state of Thorncroft's life and career. There's a definite sense of Ricky Gervais/Stephen Merchant-style cringe comedy that gives way to a more HOT FUZZ-esque genre parody, and the styles don't always mesh. Also, the identity of the real villain is a bit of a letdown, since the individual doesn't have much to do with the plot and just seems arbitrarily tossed in. Barratt is appropriately self-deprecating in a role that would've had Kevin Kline written all over it 25 years ago, though he and debuting director Sean Foley could've just as easily gone in either direction the whole way through, be it a squirming discomfort about a washed-up actor or as an outright parody with a feature-length MINDHORN episode in the vein of  an AUSTIN POWERS or a MACGRUBER. There's some very funny inside jokes for fans of British cinema, whether it's Branagh's deadpan cameo as himself ("No fucking clue who that was," he tells his assistant when Thorncroft finally leaves), or Thorncroft dealing with the ballbusting of actor/author Simon Callow, another of his agent's clients ("Fuck off, Callow!"). There's also some big laughs coming from his diva-like attitude when he arrives to help with the investigation, stopping a cop and ordering a coffee or requesting his tea with two teabags and name-dropping Sean Bean in the process ("Picked that up from Sean Bean...'Double-Bag' Bean, we called him."). MINDHORN doesn't maintain that same level of absurdist inspiration all the way through, but as far as Netflix Originals go, it's a better British comedy than DAVID BRENT: LIFE ON THE ROAD and a much better cop comedy than the dismal HANDSOME: A NETFLIX MYSTERY MOVIE.

No comments:

Post a Comment