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There's less to Conspiracy Theory than meets the eye.

By Jesse Fox Mayshark

AUGUST 18, 1997:  I read an article not long ago in a semi-respectable magazine that said fluoride--that's right, fluoride--might not be so good for us after all. Seems the government has spent years suppressing studies that show the stuff that's in most of the water we drink can make rats dopey and lethargic in large doses (don't ask me the difference between a dumb rat and a smart rat). Even some EPA scientists are now calling for more tests. The implications are staggering. What if Cas Walker and the John Birch Society were right when they hollered about fluoridated water all those years ago, and everybody else was wrong?

That's more or less the premise of the new thriller Conspiracy Theory, and it's a pretty good one. Jerry Fletcher (Mel Gibson), a paranoid Big Apple taxi driver, has theories about everything and everyone. He thinks NASA uses the space shuttle to start earthquakes. He thinks the Grateful Dead are British spies. He thinks Aristotle Onassis and Howard Hughes started the Vietnam War. He compiles his insights in a newsletter, which he sends out to five subscribers from an apartment where everything, including milk in the refrigerator, has its own padlock. But it's unclear how much of his own prattle Jerry believes, so he's as surprised as anyone when real-life government agents start chasing him. One of his theories is apparently right, but he doesn't even know which one.

Unfortunately, the set-up, which takes up the first half-hour or so of the two-hours-plus film, is as clever as Conspiracy Theory gets. From there, it goes downhill fast. By the end, nothing is either as sinister or as interesting as it initially seems, and Conspiracy Theory emerges as just another mediocre Hollywood thriller.

The first problem is that Jerry Fletcher isn't really nuts. Sure, he has all the trappings of a wacko--he never leaves his apartment the same way he enters it--but Gibson plays him like he's just a cuddly eccentric. The film isn't interested in exploring his neuroses--the way, say, Taxi Driver got inside Travis Bickle's head--and eventually explains them away through laborious plot contortions. From the beginning, Gibson's knowing grin tells you he's in on the joke. In the age of The X-Files, paranoia is almost as hip a pop-culture commodity as lesbians. Conspiracy Theory is paranoia chic. The script makes this clear early on, when Jerry distances himself from the genuinely disturbing militia movement, conveniently dismissing it as a United Nations front. And his myriad theories somehow avoid the anti-Semitism endemic to conspiracy buffs worldwide (although he is an anti-Papist; apparently Catholics are fair game).

The assertion that Jerry's basically an OK guy is nowhere more apparent--or more absurd--than in the film's romantic sub-plot, which has Gibson enlisting the aid of pretty Justice Department investigator Alice Sutton (Julia Roberts, who's about as convincing as a Fed as she was as a hooker). The movie shows us Jerry is infatuated with Alice, watching her through her windows at night with binoculars and barging into her office repeatedly demanding to see her. In real life, this is called stalking. In Conspiracy Theory, it's just a socially inept guy trying to show how much he really cares. If it doesn't seem totally preposterous that Roberts doesn't just have him hauled off, that's because Gibson has painstakingly taken all the edges off of his performance. (Compare it with Brad Pitt's believably schizophrenic and convincingly dangerous character in 12 Monkeys.)


Still, Mel is appealing in his movie star way, and he's far from the film's biggest flaw. The main problem is that Conspiracy Theory never generates any real suspense or, for that matter, interest in its plot. There are twists and turns, yes, but they always end up in predictable places. The red herrings might as well be labeled "Red Herring--Disregard." And Patrick Stewart, in the evil, bespectacled bald guy role that's usually played by Ben Kingsley, has all the menace of a cranky poodle. He's also afflicted with one of the worst of movie villain syndromes--every time he and his goons capture Jerry, they somehow manage to leave him unattended, permitting a series of increasingly ludicrous escapes.

Director Richard Donner, who also made the Lethal Weapon movies, deflates the film whenever he gets a chance, interrupting action scenes with prolonged mushy dialogue between Gibson and Roberts. And the score is just weird, alternating between inappropriately brassy horns and sappy strings, sometimes during the same scene. It feels like music left over from two or three other movies.

It's disheartening to watch a potentially interesting idea--and a moderately talented cast--take a back seat to the tired explosions, car chases, and ho-hum plot twists that make up the film's second half. But then, that's true of most Hollywood action movies these days. It's almost enough to make you think it's a conspiracy. Or maybe it's just something in the water...

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