Directed by Richard Donner. Starring Mel Gibson, Julia Roberts, Patrick Stewart, Cylk Cozart. (1997, R, 135 min.)
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Aug. 8, 1997
Conspiracy Theory is an oddball big-budget summer movie in many respects: There are no fireball explosions every 10 minutes, the storyline actually takes precedence over special effects, and the target viewere is someone with a brain. Of course, the movie star wattage of its two leads -- Gibson and Roberts, who acquit themselves well here -- is a clear concession to the current Hollywood formula for summer film fare; in other words, the production doesn't go out on a limb entirely. Taking its cue from the notion that American society is obsessed with covert political intrigues and machinations, Conspiracy Theory is an interesting but flawed thriller in which the wildly paranoiac is something really real. Gibson plays a New York cabbie, rambling on to anyone who will listen -- and to those who don't -- about everything from tracking devices in the new $100 bill to the real reason underlying the “Eat Meat” advertising campaign. As written, he's the benign Taxi Driver, a lovable, childlike, eccentric kook given to strange and erratic behavior, stalking beautiful attorneys, and obsessively collecting copies of The Catcher in the Rye. During its overlong course, Conspiracy Theory attempts to explain the Gibson character's motives and his connection to the serious-minded Justice Department lawyer with whom he's seemingly obsessed, but the narrative convolutions feel tempered by a need for credibility. Why the screenplay didn't reach into the stratosphere for its plot gimmicks is a mystery; if ever a premise had the literary license to be outlandish, it's one that's grounded in conspiracy theories. Aside from an initial uneasiness in the film's sympathetic depiction of someone who is, from all accounts, a potential harm to himself and others, Conspiracy Theory kicks into high gear about a third of the way through and provides a great ride for a while. And while the frequent homages (or is it thievery?) in Donner's direction and in Brian Helgeland's script are often distracting to the informed moviegoer -- there are echoes of The Manchurian Candidate, Torn Curtain, Marathon Man, and, of course, Taxi Driver throughout -- these lapses are almost forgivable when the movie finds its momentum. Unfortunately, that momentum loses steam near the movie's end, and the disappointing explanations and sentimentalism take over. All of which is to say that, despite its subject matter, even this Conspiracy Theory ultimately can't resist the siren of unoriginality that is called Hollywood.