In Conspiracy Theory (Warner Bros.), Mel Gibson plays a New York City cabdriver named Jerry Fletcher for whom a car radio tuned to the rantings of Howard Stern is superfluous. Jerry is a geyser of paranoid political fantasies, and no passenger is safe from his ruminations about what They are doing to Us. Jerry sees plots and auguries of no good in everything from the death of Jerry Garcia to the success of Oliver Stone (well, who doesn’t?), and as he drives around town, he delivers his pensees with the intensity of a downtown poet.
Of course, Jerry also happens to be right. They are indeed out to get Us and, in particular, Jerry, who has flashbacks and premonitions of danger. Then some guys, led by a creepy psychiatrist played by Patrick Stewart, almost kill him, which is compelling evidence of trouble. Except that it takes a good long time before Jerry is able to convince Alice Sutton, a brave and lovely Justice Department lawyer, that she really should help him. Fortunately, Alice is played by Julia Roberts, so you know she will, and does, and the two proceed to outwit the evil masterminds bent on world domination.
At least, that’s what They at Warner Bros. want you to think. In fact, Conspiracy Theory is a plot to make you buy the idea of attractive Lethal Weapon star Mel Gibson as a cabbie (”Where to, pal?” he asks a passenger much too politely to make it in NYC). That way you’re set up for when director Richard Donner — who worked with Gibson on all three audience-pleasing Weapons — switches the movie from a really interesting, jittery, literate, and witty tone poem about justified contemporary paranoia (and the creatively unhinged dark side of New York City) to an overloaded, meandering iteration of a Lethal Weapon project that bears the not-so-secret stamp of audience testing and tinkering.
How else to explain the transformation of Gibson — about the only Hollywood powerhouse around capable of letting himself go so unvainly loose and nuts — from compelling eccentric to love- inspired hero? How else to explain the ridiculously fuzzy contours of Julia Roberts’ Alice, a character so underdeveloped that the actress (who, nevertheless, gives it a good shot, only adding to her plus column this summer following the success of My Best Friend’s Wedding) has nothing much to do except beam, scream, and team?
In the first half of Conspiracy Theory (written with verve by Brian Helgeland, who also did wonders on the upcoming L.A. Confidential), production designer Paul Sylbert and cinematographer John Schwartzman give New York a crazed look of Watch your back! In the second half, when They take over, sense of place falls away so precipitously that the last sight we see is Roberts beaming as she rides a horsey in the country. Why? Ask Oliver Stone. B-