Jerry Fletcher (Mel Gibson), a nutty New York cab driver fond of regaling passengers with his crackpot conspiracy theories, is hopelessly in love with lawyer Alice Sutton (Julia Roberts). But while Alice remains the one person who does not think Jerry is a total loon, since he once saved her life, she does not take him seriously being too preoccupied investigating the death of her father, a prominent judge. When Jerry is abducted by a shadowy group of agents employed by the sinister Doctor Jonas (Patrick Stewart), a psychiatrist who claims to work for the C.I.A., he realises one of his outlandish ideas is actually real. Which one exactly, Jerry doesn’t know but after escaping Jonas and finding himself on the run from cops, FBI agents and covert assassins, he tries desperately to enlist Alice’s help.
Paranoia went mainstream in the Nineties as Hollywood repackaged our worst fears as glossy entertainment. Oliver Stone poured millions into his own personal, all-star conspiracy theory in the compelling, albeit widely debunked J.F.K. (1991), The X-Files took television by storm and briefly made UFO obsessives seem sexy while Tony Scott had moviegoers stop worrying about their civil liberties being invaded and just enjoy the bright flashy lights in his tepid Enemy of the State (1998). For the conspiracy-minded it was almost as if the film industry were lulling us into a passive state where we would simply accept widespread political corruption as a given. But that’s crazy, right? Along with Enemy of the State, Conspiracy Theory arrived late in the game but where Scott dressed up his recycled ideas with whiz-bang special effects, this fell back on old fashioned star-power, glossing up a quirky concept with the stellar presence of Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts.
At the root of the film rests the intriguing idea that people concoct grandiose conspiracy theories in order to connect with like-minded individuals and make sense of a far more disordered world. It remains an affecting notion, arguably more persuasive than the conspiratorial boogeymen fantasies concocted in the wake of such landmark paranoia-fests as The Parallax View (1974). After all, when one ponders the implications of a lone psychotic being able to murder someone as powerful as the American president, the idea of a shadowy cabal of international conspirators seems almost reassurring. Unfortunately, Conspiracy Theory loses track of this agreeably humane thread as it shuffles from screwball comedy to love story and identikit action thriller.
Scripted by Brian Helgeland - in the same year as his breakthrough with the similarly conspiracy minded, though far more stringent and skillful L.A. Confidential - the film lifts ideas from other more important paranoid thrillers in a seemingly post-modern attempt to do for its genre what Scream (1996) did for the slasher film. Witness Patrick Stewart riffing on Laurence Olivier’s role in Marathon Man (1976) or the self-conscious nod to The Manchurian Candidate (1962). Helgeland peppers the screenplay with references to dozens of real-life assassinations, conspiracies and urban myths but it is all a mishmash of inconsequential ideas serving only to distract viewers from what proves a dishearteningly pedestrian plot.
Wildly overlong and as undisciplined as the Lethal Weapon movies Richard Donner made with Gibson, sluggish pacing obscures the few good gags and effective suspense sequences. Parts of Helgeland’s screenplay are well-constructed, albeit overreliant on lengthy monologues that Donner unwisely retains as a means of feeding important information rather than doing so in exciting, cinematic ways. Considering how effectively Julia Roberts essayed a similar role in The Pelican Brief (1994) for the master of the paranoid thriller Alan J. Pakula, the film foolishly reduces her to merely a glamorous reactor to Mad Mel’s tirades. Gibson imbues someone who on paper must read like Travis Bickle with a disarmingly boyish charm. That might make him more palatable to the audience yet weirdly excuses his psychotic behaviour and serves to remind us that most of Mel’s heroes are crazy people. Coincidence?