Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Visions of Paranoia

By Debbie Gilbert

AUGUST 18, 1997:  You've heard the old joke: Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not after you.

It's no joke for New York City cab-driver Jerry Fletcher (Mel Gibson), who sees plots everywhere he turns. This is a guy who's so distrustful of "them" that he padlocks not only his refrigerator but the individual food containers inside of it. He talks nonstop of conspiracies to anyone who will listen, and if there's no one around, he talks to himself. He compulsively buys copies of A Catcher in the Rye -- a book he's never read -- because it makes him feel secure and "normal." And every night, he brings home a stack of newspapers from which he clips articles that arouse his suspicions. From these, he concocts new theories and promulgates them via his conspiracy newsletter, which has a whopping five subscribers.

Ironically for a man who's afraid of being followed, Jerry himself appears to be stalking Justice Department attorney Alice Sutton (Julia Roberts). He spies on her through her apartment window, and he makes up excuses to visit her at the office. Unaware of the spying, Alice humors him and tolerates his rantings, partly because he once rescued her from a mugging, and perhaps also because she feels sorry for him.

Then Jerry's worst nightmare comes true: He is abducted and brutally interrogated (in a scene that's painful to watch) by sinister-looking psychiatrist Dr. Jonas (Patrick Stewart). Ostensibly working for some shadowy government agency, Jonas tries to extract information that the terrified Jerry simply doesn't have to give. Surviving this ordeal, Jerry runs to Alice, babbling incoherently, and soon she, too, is involved in the cat-and-mouse game. The pair spend the rest of the movie running from what?

In a typical film by director Richard Donner (e.g., Superman, the Lethal Weapon series), there's a straightforward battle between good and evil. But Conspiracy Theory paints everything in shades of gray. Does Jonas intend to harm Alice or to protect her? Is Jerry an innocuous kook or a sociopathic killer waiting to explode? For most of the movie, we -- along with Alice and Jerry -- don't have the full picture of what's going on. And it's never clear who's the mastermind behind the larger scenario. But apparently the filmmakers were reluctant to leave us with too much ambiguity, because they tack on a sappy ending that looks as though it was added after test audiences didn't like the original version.

Still, Conspiracy Theory has a lot going for it. For at least two-thirds of the way through, it's well-paced and intriguing, and screenwriter Brian Helgeland's script is clever and often very funny. The music was composed by Carter Burwell, who's done offbeat scores for all of the Coen brothers' movies.

But what makes Conspiracy Theory more interesting than the standard thriller is Gibson's complex, eccentric performance in what turns out to be one of the best roles of his career. Few actors would dare to make themselves as vulnerable as Gibson does here. In most of his previous films, he's played a confident, competent character who is able to manipulate circumstances to his advantage. But as Jerry Fletcher, he worries that he's not in control of anything -- least of all his own feelings. He senses there's some nameless horror inside that's driving him to behave as he does, but he's unable to articulate what it is. We can't decide if Jerry is merely a pathetic loser or downright psychotic -- and neither can Jerry.

Gibson has played crazies before, most notably Riggs in Lethal Weapon. But Riggs, though suicidal, was still firmly in touch with reality. Jerry, on the other hand, is only tenuously grounded in the here and now, and far from wanting to kill himself, he's obsessed with self-preservation. Yet for all his lunatic behavior, he never seems the least bit threatening. When he's compelled to slug someone, he apologizes afterward. Often he resembles nothing so much as a lovesick puppy, and he engages our sympathies even if we don't fully understand him.

Julia Roberts has the unenviable task of playing the straight role, and she rises to the challenge. As Alice, she's calm and patient, bringing Jerry back down to earth when he flies off on tangents. She counterbalances his giddiness by staying low-key and reserved, and we begin to sense that Alice, in her own way, is as scared of her feelings as Jerry is of his. Their odd relationship remains platonic, however, because there's no chance of a real romance between a sophisticated lawyer and a mentally screwed-up cabbie, even if circumstances throw them together.

The filmmakers try to present Conspiracy Theory as both a thriller and a love story. It doesn't quite succeed as either. But as a character study of a confused, psychologically damaged individual, it works very well indeed. -- Debbie Gilbert

FINN TAYLOR'S DARK COMEDY Dream With The Fishes begins with a failed suicide. As Terry (David Arquette) teeters at the edge of a bridge, he's joined by Nick (Brad Hunt), who convinces him that pills are the better way to go. The pair returns to Terry's apartment, where Nick gives him a bottle of pills in exchange for Terry's watch. Then Terry, half-zonked, chickens out, to which Nick replies disgustedly, "I was going to just sit here and watch you die. I've got stuff to do, too, you know."

As it turns out, Nick does have stuff to do. He's got just three weeks to live, so he enlists Terry and his money to take him on a vacation. In return, Nick promises to kill Terry when the vacation is completed. This joining of two desperate souls is something of a marriage of convenience, but one that proves fruitful for both of them. Terry is a stiff-as-a-board widower whose only source of pleasure is through voyeurism, whereas Terry is too flighty for his own good.

Terry and Nick drop acid, bowl with prostitutes, and then repair to Nick's hometown so that he can make amends with his father and visit the girl who broke his heart. As is to be expected of a buddy film about death, both Nick and Terry attain a certain amount of emotional release. But Taylor, who wrote and directed this film, adds enough quirky touches to keep it interesting. Among them is Cathy Moriarty as Nick's aging stripper aunt and his old pal Don (Patrick McGaw), who's had an incredible run of bad luck.

The acting in Dream With The Fishes is sometimes shaky and the lighting is sometimes impossibly dark, but it's genial -- a small film with small, nice pleasures. -- Susan Ellis

Far Away Films

Indian Film Festival offers exotic fare.

For the next two weekends, Memphis moviegoers will have the opportunity to see something a bit more exotic than usual. To commemorate India's 50th year of Independence, the Indian Association of Memphis is holding an Indian Film Festival. Six films will be featured that, according to festival coordinator Asan Tejwani, will give locals a taste of Indian culture.

India produces more movies per year than any other country, and the signature of the movies is their elaborate song and dance numbers, some five or six per film. For the festival, Tejwani has chosen internationally recognized films that are more grounded than the average fantasy-heavy movies seen in Indian. Says Tejwani, "These movies take you to the real India. They portray pathetic conditions; they offer tribulations of the common man. But the person comes out uplifted. It shows you how you can overcome."

The Indian Film Festival runs August 15th-17th and August 22nd-24th, with a 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. screening each day at the Cinema Showcase 12 on Old Summer Road (763-3456). Tickets are $5 for the 2 p.m. screenings, $6 for the 8 p.m. Series tickets are also available for the entire series at $20 for the 2 p.m. shows, $25 for the 8 p.m. Tickets are on sale at Asian Groceries at 5016 American Way and Bombay Bazaar 4273 American Way, Suite 1.

  • Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda (Seventh Horse of the Sun) -- A bittersweet comedy about a young Railway Mail Service worker who spends two days telling three stories, each concerning a failed involvement with a woman. Friday, August 15th.

  • Mirch Masala (Hot Spices) -- A sadistic tax collector arrives in a small village and demands that he be given one of the village women. With little support, the woman refuses and brutally fights back. Saturday, August 16th.

  • Diksha (Initiation) -- Set in the early 1930s, a Vedic scholar reluctantly takes on a new pupil and a forbidden love produces an out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Sunday, August 17th.

  • Miss Beatty's Children -- An English missionary battles discrimination after she adopts abandoned and orphaned children. Friday, August 22nd.

  • Rudaali (The Mourner) -- Drama following a professional mourner who cannot cry. Saturday, August 23rd.

  • Tarpan (Absolution) -- A couple searches for a cure for their ailing 7-year-old daughter. Sunday, August 24th.

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