Just because you're paranoid, the saying goes, doesn't mean they're not out to get you. This turns out to be the unstated motto of New York City taxi driver Jerry Fletcher (Mel Gibson), who tells his passengers loopy conspiracy theories until their eyes glaze over.
Under director Richard Donner's watchful eye, the jittery and gabby Jerry is far from Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver) territory. His paranoia is played for laughs, which allows screenwriter Brian Helgeland to riff on popular culture to comic effect (the Grateful Dead are high-level British spies, Jerry insists, which explains why they're always on tour). All this sets Jerry up as a crackpot eccentric, but one who's eminently redeemable.
Jerry's obsessions are publishing a newsletter that exposes the sinister powers that be (he has five subscribers) and stalking Justice Department attorney Alice Sutton (Julia Roberts). Instead of filing a restraining order, Alice indulges Jerry by listening to his theories and keeping him at what she believes is a safe distance. But when she realizes that Jerry actually is being pursued by a clandestine agency (headed by a smug Patrick Stewart), Alice dives in and becomes his ally.
While slickly put together by Donner (Lethal Weapon), Conspiracy Theory falls apart on close examination. The convoluted plotline includes the rigorous detailing of numerous conspiracy theories that turn out to be true.
But after a great deal of screen time is dedicated to them, they are summarily dismissed like so many red herrings.
In one of the film's best scenes, a nighttime cab ride turns into a terrifying journey as Jerry falls into a trancelike state while driving, seeing a series of vivid and disjointed images instead of the road. But much later, when a suddenly lucid Jerry recalls his past to Alice, his explanation is flat, lifeless and unconvincing.
"Manchurian Candidate stuff," says Alice when faced with Jerry's submerged memories. Nothing here comes close to the chilling and subversive nature of that 1962 Cold War thriller, and comparisons only show Conspiracy Theory to be a second-rate pastiche, and a lazy one at that.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].