Conspiracy Theory Almost Succeeds

Laserdisc. Mel Gibson, Julia Roberts, Patrick Stewart. Directed by Richard Donner. Aspect ratio: 2.35:1. Dolby Digital. 3 sides. 135 minutes. 1997. CLV/CAV. Warner Bros./Image Entertainment Widescreen Edition WB 115091. $39.95.

"Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you." That's the premise of Conspiracy Theory, the Warner Bros. thriller now out on laserdisc. The film stars Mel Gibson as Jerry Fletcher, an obsessed New York City cab driver who sees ominous patterns in unrelated events, and who publishes his findings in a samizdat-style newsletter.

Fletcher pines over star-equestrian-turned-Justice-Department-lawyer Alice Sutton (woodenly portrayed by Julia Roberts) and finds every imaginable excuse to pester her at work with his crackpot theories: "Did you ever notice that serial killers all have two names, like Ted Bundy, and assassins have three? John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald?" Sutton patiently endures his rants because he once saved her from a couple of muggers. Unknown to her, Fletcher also acts as her self-appointed guardian angel.

Something Fletcher has published has aroused the suspicion and ire of a mysterious organization run by the ruthless "psychiatrist" Dr. Jonas, played with professional competence by Patrick Stewart. Fletcher is subjected to truth-serum torture in an attempt to discover what he knows. With that, the chase is on, complete with the requisite number of black helicopters, law-enforcement thugs of indeterminate loyalty, gun battles, explosions, fist-fights, bodies flying out of upper-story windows, auto collisions, near-collisions, kidnappings, and miraculous escapes.

Gibson is outstanding and totally believable as the conspiracy theorist, whose lack of inhibition in discussing his ideas is offset by his extreme paranoia of being discovered by "them." Roberts, playing opposite him, sleep-walks through her role. Stewart is effective as the one-dimensional Jonas, head of a shadowy intelligence or crime ring. It's never clear who comprises this organization---or what its objective is.

The big plot twist, after it is revealed that readers of Fletcher's newletter are dying one by one, is that he was a programmed hit man assigned to take out Sutton's father 20 years earlier, and has been in hiding ever since. Hankie effect: Sutton, former big-time horsewoman, never rode again after her father's death.

The film's producers apparently felt an empathetic lead character, some generic bad guys, and a poorly fabricated "love interest" were sufficient to propel the story. And that's the problem. Good acting on Gibson's part, and on the part of the supporting cast, and good editing, aren't enough to prevent this film from registering as a profound insult to your intelligence. There are holes in the story large enough to permit passage to the proverbial truck.

What's worse, the film has a tacked-on hearts'n'flowers ending that gives every appearance of having been added after a poor reception by a test audience. My friend Marc Meisner, upon whose excellent home theater this flick was screened, remarked, "They probably figured they had to do that, or no women would go to see it." The tactic didn't work; the film had a short and not very profitable theatrical run.

Great premise + flawed script + too much concern for the box office = mediocrity masquerading as art. What might have been a gritty and gripping tale winds up being just another example of Hollywood dreck. What's slick as an oil spill and almost as deep? Demographics-driven filmmaking. That's my conspiracy theory.