The truth, and the consequences, are out there

Conspiracy Theory gives slick thrillers a good name

Jerry Fletcher, the hero of Conspiracy Theory, is a comic, glamorous variation on Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Like Travis, he's a New York cabbie obsessed with protecting a woman from the world's hidden malignancies. Unlike Travis, Jerry snaps when he achieves sanity. Mel Gibson has been almost too willing to break the stolid mold of action superstars; at his least inspired (say, in Ransom), he can come off as a poster boy for bipolar disorder. But he's at his best here. As Jerry he cuts a pop-Byronic figure: He broods close to the surface, his motormouth running constantly, his facial twitches signaling the shorted-out connections in his brain. Even when Conspiracy Theory is jammed or rushed or overly jittery, Gibson's command--of Jerry's fractured psyche, his freak perceptions, and his ardor--gives the picture blue-eyed soul.

Right from the opening minutes, when Jerry blurts out to a passenger that "love gives you wings, it makes you fly; I don't even call it love--I call it Geronimo," Gibson riffs with real emotion. Conspiracy Theory allows him to act with enormous range despite the outrageous action--and he dances out on a limb without losing his balance. The movie is about how this apparent paranoid, who sees conspiracies everywhere, discovers he's been trapped in a real and deadly spy game. "Geronimo!" proves to be an apt battle cry for politics and amour--for social and emotional truth. Jerry is ready to leap into midair screaming it whether he's tracking CIA renegades or the woman of his dreams, or both.

The way the screenwriter, Brian Helgeland, shapes the story, Jerry's manic energy at unearthing secret patterns in historical events mirrors his desperate quest to make his inner life cohere. The cabbie senses he can unravel his psychic knot if he can get to the bottom of his rapture for an acquaintance--Alice Sutton (Julia Roberts), a Justice Department attorney he keeps showering with adoration as well as doomsday hypotheses, such as the existence of an impending plot (by NASA) to kill the president with an earthquake (triggered by the space shuttle). What powers this movie psychologically is the seductive notion that love can make you whole. In this film, the torture and frenzy (though laid on thick) aren't gratuitous: Jerry is a victim of overstimulation in extremis, and he sees his bond with Alice as the one thing in his life that's decent and true.

Although director Richard Donner and co-producer Joel Silver created the meretricious Lethal Weapon thrill-machine franchise, Conspiracy Theory gives slick a good name. It doesn't have the shock or originality of a classic like The Manchurian Candidate, but it doesn't deteriorate into mere effects like the standard '90s blockbuster. The cogs interlock; the loose screws enhance rather than detract from Jerry's alternate-universe plausibility. He goes on the run from the mysterious Dr. Jonas (Patrick Stewart), who describes himself as a CIA shrink; he persuades Alice that the doctor is trying to kill him, possibly because of one of the scenarios in his Xeroxed newsletter, which is also titled Conspiracy Theory. As the pair elude competing government agencies, they gun down the barriers between them. The effect is double-barreled bittersweet.

The movie is replete with car chases and shootouts staged across Manhattan, and some of the flash is fun--like the opening-credit montage of Jerry spewing forth his hypotheses to a succession of dumbfounded fares, or the images of black helicopters stealthily slinking into urban canyons and eerily dropping armed men. But what stays with you is the characters' expressions. Gibson is great at sending out broken arcs of feeling, and Roberts is adept at registering their flickering connection. They don't overplay the poignancy, and they don't shy away from it either. Gibson can go from being a wiseacre to a heartbreaker in seconds; when Jerry reaches the limits of his expressiveness as a person, and can't convince Alice that he loves her, Gibson's acting reaches its amorous peak.

The commercial come-on and the screenplay patter is a lot like that of Men in Black: Every fleeting paranoid thought or urban fairy tale is fodder for jolts or wisecracks. But in Conspiracy Theory, they tend to clinch a story point--or puncture a gasbag. (Jerry calls Oliver Stone George Bush's "disinformation flunky.") And these throwaways gain unity and momentum from a steady stream of feeling. The movie has the wacky emotionality of the first half of the 1981 Peter Yates-Steve Tesich film Eyewitness, in which William Hurt's moonstruck janitor kept disarming Sigourney Weaver's elegant newscaster with his grinning, innocent declarations of undying devotion. What's better about Conspiracy Theory is that Helgeland's script cleverly works the twists of affection into a corkscrew plot (Eyewitness took a disastrous turn with the unveiling of its conspiracy); what's worse is that it lasts 20 minutes too long. Donner's Assassins (1995), a far less successful attempt to be a deeper kind of shoot-'em-up (with a script co-written by Helgeland), also dragged on; this director's stride slows when he goes beyond cartoon tones.

Conspiracy Theory occasionally proves too brutal for the good of its relationships--between Jerry and Alice, and between the movie and the audience. The offhand treatment of Jerry's prison hospital roommate is incongruously cold-blooded. And Patrick Stewart's crisp, bald Dr. Jonas, advancing on Jerry when he's strapped into a chair with his eyes taped open, recalls Laurence Olivier's evil dentist in Marathon Man--not a happy influence. Partly because of the abrupt shifts in mood, a fudged climax, and the enormous scale of the manhunt (with its attendant vehicular carnage), Alice's sliding allegiances and inner fortitude sometimes fail to come across. But Roberts partners Gibson smartly--the pretty woman has developed a spine while hanging on to her wells of naive wonderment. In fact, Donner puts the whole large cast on its 2,000 or so toes.

Gibson manages to be lyrical with a limited set of tools, basically amounting to memory scraps and pop songs. With his slap-happy brand of star power, he takes viewers through the film's rough spots unscathed, and leaves them both moved and amused. He conveys Jerry's existential hell and his joy in believing that, thanks to Alice, he's still one lucky guy. In Conspiracy Theory, the truth is out there--but it's also within the heart and mind of an addled Everyman in an age of high anxiety.

Conspiracy Theory.
Mel Gibson, Julia Roberts, and Patrick Stewart. Written by Brian Helgeland. Directed by Richard Donner. Opens Friday.

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