Conspiracy Theory

conspiracy_0An hour after coming home from Conspiracy Theory, I read Entertainment Weekly‘s cover story on it and was most unsurprised to find the following sentence: “Unable to resolve how the movie should end, [director Richard Donner] filmed two different endings and left the final decision up to a test audience.” Test audience: the two ugliest words in a movie buff’s vocabulary. Has there ever been a film that benefited from such cowardly studio waffling? It’s a shame, because Conspiracy Theory is two-thirds of a fine comedy of paranoia. At its best, it’s a Looney Tunes riff on Taxi Driver and The Manchurian Candidate, with Mel Gibson as the looniest toon of his career.

Jerry Fletcher (Gibson), a grungy New York cabbie, has an elaborate theory for everything. Bobbing along in his own private sea of crackpot logic, Jerry is the most entertaining creature of the season. This is the fifth time Gibson has worked with Richard Donner — their other four team-ups were the Lethal Weapon trilogy and Maverick — and these men obviously go well together; they bring out each other’s playfulness. As long as Donner stays with the babbling Gibson (in one of his riskiest and least sexy performances), the movie is completely satisfying.

But then the script (by Brian Helgeland) embroils Jerry in a real conspiracy. Jerry, it turns out, isn’t as nutty as he seems. Donner and Helgeland keep us as confused as Jerry is, zapping us with flashbacks or, perhaps, flash-forwards — they’re flashes, anyway. The only one who can help Jerry is Alice Sutton (Julia Roberts), a Justice Department lawyer whom he loves from afar. He’s been pestering her for months with one theory or another, but will she believe him when it really counts?

Conspiracy Theory works as a twisty thriller given a manic edge by Gibson. Donner has fun with the paranoid theme of such thrillers — that you can’t trust anyone or anything, even your own memory. The chief villain, played by Patrick Stewart with cool malice, spends half the movie with his nose bandaged (after Jerry bites him) — one of several nods to Chinatown. Helgeland writes some wonderful rants that Gibson happily sinks his teeth into, and the production design in Jerry’s cluttered maze of an apartment is a triumph (he has padlocks on the fridge and on the food inside); when the place was blown up, I felt a pang of loss, as if a quirky supporting character had been killed off.

Then we come to the third act, when the movie lapses into generic action scenes, contrived revelations, and half-baked romance. I won’t reveal the ending, but it’s the kind of cop-out that seems to please test audiences (and insecure studio execs). It didn’t please me; as Julia Roberts got onto her beloved old horse and rode towards a potential sequel, I looked away in embarrassment. Conspiracy Theory is well worth seeing for Mel Gibson’s immensely enjoyable performance and the edgy comedy of its first hour. But once the movie starts heading for its climax, don’t trust anything it says.

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