Conspiracy Theory

In "Conspiracy Theory," Mel Gibson plays a paranoid cab driver who discovers they really are out to get him.

Published September 8, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

mel Gibson jabbers and chatters and grimaces and groans his way through "Conspiracy Theory." Are all these tics in the script, or is he taking lessons from David Helfgott? Gibson plays Jerry Fletcher, a New York cabbie who sees conspiracies everywhere. People who venture into Jerry's cab get his theories and hoarded bits of information dropped on them like cluster bombs. He spews faster than anyone cares to keep up with; he's so used to spieling that he even does it when no one else is in the cab.

It's not particularly taxing for an audience to have to watch a character who's a little addled. It's a monumental pain in the ass, however, to watch one who can't get a sentence out, especially when the movement of the plot hinges on his being able to communicate information. When Jerry gets really excited (and that's most of the time), he starts hyperventilating, speaking in manic, strangled bursts that come out sounding like a madman's gibberish. We've all seen movies where the hero has to convince people he's telling the truth as, meanwhile, the clock counts down to some impending disaster. But listening to Gibson's Jerry try to communicate what he's been through isn't suspenseful; it's exhausting.

The screenwriter, Brian Helgeland, conceived "Conspiracy Theory" as a cross between "Taxi Driver" and the story of the boy who cried wolf. Jerry is an unhinged New York loner obsessed with a beautiful young woman, Alice Sutton (Julia Roberts), a Department of Justice worker to whom he unloads his tales of dark doings in high places. But since one look at Jerry tells you he's a paranoid wreck, Alice doesn't put much stock in what he says. And, of course, it's an uphill battle when he really does find himself in the midst of a conspiracy, and Alice is the only person who can help him.

Gibson isn't terrible, considering what Helgeland's script asks of him. He's certainly an actor capable of playing men who are coming apart. There's a shocking moment during his smashing performance in "Ransom" when, with no more than a sudden wild look in his eyes, Gibson makes you realize that his character is considering suicide. But that despair came from the frustrated impotence of a powerful man. Gibson simply looks too robust to be believable here as a character like one of those damaged loners on "The X-Files." He's playacting, begging for the audience's sympathy by playing weak and victimized and endearing, and I wouldn't be surprised to see him get the praise that's often showered on actors for taking on unsuitable roles.

It doesn't take long, though, for Gibson's who-hid-the-Prozac mood swings to become emblematic of the whole picture. "Conspiracy Theory" might have worked if it had been imagined as a tall tale made true, if there were a comic payoff -- like having every one of Jerry's crackpot suspicions coming true, or simply if those obsessions came together into one grand scheme. Halfway through the movie, we still haven't been told the significance of what Jerry has stumbled onto.

"Conspiracy Theory" doesn't know whether it wants to be a comedy, a political thriller, a romance or a satire. In some scenes, the director, Richard Donner, flirts with the sort of sour cynicism about the powerful that characterized post-Watergate movies. Donner (the "Lethal Weapon" series, "Scrooged") has shown some brash facility for big-budget entertainments in the past. "Conspiracy Theory" isn't weighed down with the inflated pulp angst of his last picture, "Assassins" (though it feels almost as endless). Donner does some good comic riffing in the opening scenes introducing Jerry. In one scene, Jerry, parked outside Alice's apartment, watches her singing along to some music he can't hear. Twiddling his cab radio, he's finally able to match her lip movements to "Can't Take My Eyes Off You," and there's a honey of a moment where we see Roberts singing with Frankie Valli's voice. And Donner has a wonderful flair for making the city at night look sleek and alluring and temptingly dangerous (the cinematographer is John Schwartzman). But too much of Donner's work is big-movie anonymous, and he can't smooth the strains of Helgeland's script into a coherent whole. Sometimes the shifts in mood are jarringly unpleasant, from the comedy of the opening scenes to a torture sequence (always a bad idea) with intelligence spooks trying to get information from Jerry.

Roberts doesn't have much of a role, but, as usual, she's touching whenever her character finds herself in extremis; she can arouse an audience's protective instincts by something as simple as a slight catch in her voice or a small tremor of fear. Perhaps what makes her a star is that this quality seems fresh each time you encounter it. "Conspiracy Theory" needs whatever human touch she can bring it. The supporting cast is nothing to speak of. Apart from Gibson and Roberts, the only person who gets much screen time is Patrick Stewart, who brings to his portrayal of the chief government baddie all the breathless excitement of the magazines in your dentist's waiting room. Sometimes I think the two best ways to con people into thinking you can act are to be bald and to have an English accent.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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