Eric Idle struck sparks as part of the Monty Python team, and his solo ventures, the Rutland Weekend television show and The Rutles mockumentry, are riddled with super-sharp, anarchic gags. So it’s hard to see how the mighty could fall so hard as to create 1993 dud Splitting Heirs, which aims to fall somewhere between Kind Hearts and Cornets and A Fish Called Wanda, but ends up making you check your own pulse to see if you’re still alive. The Pythons had a famously combative relationship, but it’s clear from their later work that they held each other’s worst comic impulses in check; Splitting Heirs shows Idle in his most uninspired form.
In the usual Merrie England setting, two boys are born and switched; an ancient set-up that delivers ancient jokes. Henry (imported star Rick Moranis) becomes the Duke of Buckinghamshire, while Tommy is raised as an adopted son by a humble Hindu family in that feels like a riff on The Jerk but also a rubbishing of George Harrison’s beliefs. A meeting with shady lawyer Raoul P Shadgrind (John Cleese) reveals Tommy’s true destiny, but to ascend to his rightful place, he’ll have to kill off the impostor who enjoys the riches Tommy dreams of.
There are novelties here for sure; any film that starts with Rick Moranis roller-skating past Eric Sykes has to engage on some level. Barbara Hershey and Catherine Zeta Jones add some glamour, but there’s genuinely not a laugh in it, and some of the cultural assumptions are offensive without being amusing.
I’m not sure why I’m driven to watch such bad comedies, particularly during a worldwide crisis. The names involved attract, and yet there’s also a strange fascination in watching comic greats flounder with sub-standard material. Splitting Heirs is a pretty awful film, made by people who have made stone-cold comedy classics; perhaps I’m searching for vestiges of that greatness, or maybe there’s some pathos to be found in the fall of a sparrow. Either way, this is a film for bad movie fans only, and easy to advise the unwary; just say nope.