It has often been pointed out that the difference between UK and US comedy is that Britain tends to find comedy in failure, with America stereotypically positioning its comedians punching down at those below in a manner designed to feel aspirational. Post-Seinfeld, many American stand-ups and sitcoms have diverted to a more distinctively British mindset, yet this old adage still mostly remains.
TV network executives and film studio heads alike believe that nobody is willing to devote time and money to a depiction of failure in a society as rooted in the need for success as the US – but thankfully, here in Britain, we are still willing to fund high concept comedies that refuse to glamourise a pathetic lead character.
A Frankenstein’s monster of Brit-comedy tropes that still feels fresh and funny
Mindhorn, the debut feature film from theatre director Sean Foley, has one hell of a concept that has been created as a Frankenstein’s monster, taking bits and pieces from other British cult comedies from the last two decades.
Like Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge or Ricky Gervais’ David Brent, Julian Barratt’s creation Richard Thorncroft is a has-been success story whose self-delusion and indestructible ego makes him obsessed with making a comeback to the big time. The closest US comparison would be Kenny Powers, the former baseball legend played by Danny McBride in Eastbound and Down.
Thorncroft was the star of a successful crime show in the late ’80s called Mindhorn, about a detective with a bionic eye who could literally “see the truth”- and in the process became the greatest plain clothes detective the Isle of Man had ever seen.
Flash forward a quarter of a century and Thorncroft has been largely forgotten – his attempts to leave for Hollywood following the series finale quickly derailed, with no work to be found in Britain after he routinely offended everybody in the industry and, to a greater extent, the entire population of the Isle of Man.
He is now middle aged, overweight, and the only acting work he gets is a series of commercials for orthopaedic socks. After a deranged serial killer (Russell Tovey) is on the loose in the Isle of Man, announcing he will only talk to Thorncroft in character, he is asked to resume his beloved role – something he mistakenly decides to take advantage of as a PR opportunity.
From the above synopsis, you will likely see plenty of comparisons to Alan Partridge – something that is presumably not lost on Barratt and co-screenwriter Simon Farnaby, as they’ve even drafted Coogan in for a cameo as a Mindhorn star who gained a lucrative spin-off. Luckily, thanks to Barratt’s leading performance, which manages to perfectly exploit the fragility of the male ego for comic gain, this is a film and a character which stands on its own two feet.
Barratt is best known to British audiences for his role in The Mighty Boosh, where he played the delusional straight man, managing to ground the surreal comedy in a relatable world of human failure. Stripped of the surrealism, Barratt lets his natural comic impulses shine and perfectly bounces off the rhythms of the entire ensemble.
Here, he gets the opportunity to play both the straight man and the hyper-normal delusional role; not only does he make it seem effortless, but it is only in analysing the film afterwards that you realise how difficult it is to make such a character appear balanced. It may even be a lack of celebrity outside of this TV role that has informed the many layers to his character – with close to a decade since that series ended, could he too be worried about being forgotten?
A decade in the making – but completely worth the wait
The ensemble aren’t exactly known for their comic chops either. Outside of co-screenwriter Simon Farnaby’s bonkers performance as Bancroft’s ex-stuntman and the new husband of his ex-wife, the majority of the cast are made up of dramatic actors, helping to ground the silliness in the reality of a police procedural. Andrea Riseborough and Essie Davis both have pivotal roles, yet they are there to act as a comic foil – a reminder that not everybody in this universe lives in the heightened reality that the main characters do.
It is a credit to the screenplay, which takes its implausible narrative increasingly seriously as it progresses, that it manages to let the silliness and seriousness co-exist. It is the perfect crossover of a cult, Mighty Boosh style sensibility and the more mainstream Alan Partridge influence that renders all misguided attempts at success innately hilarious.
At a post screening Q&A, Barratt and Farnaby claimed they had spent a decade developing the screenplay, and it definitely shows. It may appear effortless, but managing to balance the clashing inter-character personalities and disparate tonal sensibilities (from lowbrow slapstick one scene to something approaching heartfelt emotion the next), all the while creating a coherent and engaging story-line is easier said than done.
The time it has taken to craft the movie is utterly commendable and the results have paid off; despite the resemblances Richard Barncroft has to many established British comedy characters, the unique oddness of the world around him has helped make Mindhorn feel truly distinctive and genuinely hilarious throughout.
The film also bears more than a passing resemblance to Hot Fuzz, in the depiction of a small British community carrying on as normal despite a high murder rate happening all around them. As the film progresses to its joyously ludicrous third act, these resemblances become increasingly apparent – and yet again, the joy of the screenplay is that you only consider these comparisons after viewing.
It is funny at such a consistently high rate, that any resemblances to other British comedy staples make it sound derivative on paper, when in reality it stands on its own two feet as one of the funniest films, from the UK or otherwise, to have emerged in the past few years.
Mindhorn is a cult comedy classic in waiting and is almost certainly the strongest contender for funniest film of 2017. Repeat viewings will reveal plenty of hidden gags, richer foreshadowing and an even deeper empathy for its flawed, foolish characters – I for one, certainly cannot wait to see it again.
What are your most anticipated comedies of 2017?
Mindhorn will be released internationally in 2017, with all release dates to be found here, as soon as they are announced.