July 18, 1988 12:00 PM

John Cleese may be the funniest man on earth, although no evidence exists to prove that’s his place of origin. In this hilariously unhinged farce, Cleese has the role of a lifetime. Monty Python’s most famous silly walker plays a stuffy English barrister, alert in court but dulled at home by a scold of a wife (Maria Aitken). Enter Wanda. Not the fish; that comes later. Wanda is Jamie Lee Curtis, deliciously sassy and seductive as an American con artist who comes to Cleese for help. She has just pulled off a diamond heist with three male accomplices: her lover Tom Georgeson, who masterminded the job, her lover Kevin Kline, an American whose mind finds it hard to master anything, and her non-lover Michael Palin, a stutterer who loves the other Wanda, a goldfish. Curtis needs Cleese because Cleese is defending Georgeson, the only captured member of the quartet of thieves. Georgeson is also the one who knows where the diamonds are, because he hid them. Got that? It doesn’t matter. The fun comes in watching screenwriter Cleese and veteran British director Charles (The Lavender Hill Mob) Crichton, 78, set this talented cast spinning through the slaphappiest slapstick in years. Gleefully unstuck from his last role as the stiff South African journalist in Cry Freedom, Kline lets go with a robust round of physical comedy that compares with his best stage work (The Pirates of Penzance and the current Much Ado About Nothing). Palin, another Pythoner, is a deadpan delight trying to knock off an old lady (Patricia Hayes) who witnessed the crime; instead he keeps murdering her pet terriers. Still, it’s Cleese who steals the show. Yes, he’s fall-on-the-floor funny. Watch him strip down for a tryst with Curtis, only to be discovered dancing in naked abandon by a nonplussed British family. But more than laughs are at stake. What really makes Cleese great is the no-bull way he plays the love story. Curtis may be hustling him, but the bumbling barrister’s passion for her is real. He’s unexpectedly, endearingly touching. Putting heart and heat into a film that could have easily slid by on silliness, Cleese proves himself a master actor. (R)

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