Just like the Beatles, the Monty Python group in pieces never seems to match the greatness of its whole. "Splitting Heirs" (selected theaters), an Eric Idle project with a bit of John Cleese, is a nice enough comedy about things like abandoning babies, nymphomania, near-incest and trying to murder your way into the aristocracy. But it doesn't have the brilliance of the old Pythons. It doesn't pulse, rage, knock your socks off.
Nor does it have the irony and fancy edges of its obvious model, Robert Hamer's 1949 comedy of crimes "Kind Hearts and Coronets," in which Dennis Price kept trying to kill all the relatives--all played by Alec Guinness--between him and a dukeship.
Here, Idle, as Tommy, the rightful Duke of Bournemouth abandoned in infancy by his careless rich-hippie parents, keeps trying to kill Rick Moranis, as an improbable Roller-Blading American who's taken his place, both in the dukedom and in the affections of the madly arousing social climber Kitty (Catherine Zeta Jones.) Tommy, the movie informs us, is in his 20s and has been raised by his adoptive family of poor Pakistanis--and, frankly, Idle can play Pakistani better than he can play 20. Pretending he can still do naive youths is probably one of Idle's little jokes: like giving his old Python mate the special credit: "And introducing John Cleese."
What "Splitting Heirs" does have is a relatively clean, fast style. Its cinematographer is Tony Pierce-Roberts, and its director is one of the many Robert Youngs that have worked in movies, the one that directed "Jeeves and Wooster" rather than "The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez." And it has laughs--which is probably all we need ask of a movie comedy.
Is the old Python spirit still flitting about here? Perhaps. There are several major resemblances: "Splitting Heirs" is irreverent toward authority, the men tend to be either twits or maniacs, and the ladies are madly lascivious--even though Terry Jones isn't around to play them. Barbara Hershey, as Tommy's gorgeous mother, Duchess Lucinda, movingly plays a love child grown old but not shy. Jones, a Welsh actress making her movie debut, slinks around this film like a cat who's taken over the whole house. She's welcome.
All the actors are fun to watch, particularly Moranis, who's playing a little swiftie this time, instead of one of his usual nerds. But the only really withering comic turn is supplied by Cleese, as Shadgrind the lawyer. Cleese has always excelled at playing bent Establishment types; he's one of the best comic sadists in the history of movies. Here, he's playing a lawyer who's a actually a psychopath and homicidal maniac. When Tommy comes to discuss his rightful inheritance, Cleese's Shadgrind has the solution within minutes: mercury chloride in the brandy or a bash on the head--all just speculatively, of course.
The way Cleese hounds Idle through this movie is the movie's high point. And it's the film's only real point of comparison with the older British comedies, the Ealing pictures with Guinness or the Peter Sellers farces, that it tries to evoke.
And "Splitting Heirs" (MPAA-rated PG-13) is an OK comedy: not as good as the Python works, not as good as Cleese's "A Fish Called Wanda," probably not even as good as Idle's "The Rutles." When you chop up a Python, you probably shouldn't complain that its hugs aren't as intense. This movie is just as good as it has to be--except when Cleese takes over, wandering up with a leer and another bomb. Then, it's a killer.
Rick Moranis: Henry
Eric Idle: Tommy
Barbara Hershey: Duchess Lucinda
John Cleese: Shadgrind
A Universal Pictures presentation of a Prominent Features production. Director Robert Young. Producers Simon Bosanquet, Redmond Morris. Executive producer/Screenplay Idle. Cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts. Editor John Jympson. Costumes Penny Rose. Music Michael Kamen. Production design John Beard. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.