"Conspiracy Theory" takes an interesting high concept ('one of a New York cabby's paranoid conspiracy theories comes true', which grabs your attention and tells you everything you need to know about the movie), two nice-to-look-at actors (Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts), the distrusting-chic of today's popular culture, and spins them into a less-than-satisfying summer event film that pales in comparison to its direct competition, "Air Force One".
This guy's a restraining order waiting to happen.
When we first are introduced to Jerry Fletcher (Gibson), he is going about his business of driving a cab through the crowded thoroughfares of New York, talking the ears off of his captive audience about his outlandish conspiracy theories, such as water fluoridation serving the purpose of making the population more malleable to government propaganda and that Oliver Stone was actually a disinformation agent under the employ of George Bush. He is very distrustful, and has elaborate rituals to ensure that the 'spooks' don't get to him-- his apartment is a narrow sliver, protected by multiple deadbolt locks, stuffed full of old newspaper clippings, and has steel bars in the kitchen ensure that no one tampers with his food. He is also in love with a young woman working in the Justice Department-- Alice Sutton (Roberts). He spends every night camped out under her apartment window, watching her push herself on her tread mill. Alice also has a quest for truth-- her father, a judge, was murdered, and she desperately wants to know who killed him and why he was killed.
Why do you push yourself? Why do you run so hard?
One day, Jerry has just finished typing the latest issue of Conspiracy Theory, the newsletter which he sounds out to his five faithful subscribers. It features an article about a NASA plot to kill the President of the United States with a seismic weapon on board the space shuttle (he points to the fact that every major earthquake has coincided with a space shuttle launch). On his eighth visit to Alice's office, Jerry tells Alice about his theory and asks her to warn the President about the assassination plot. She takes his suggestion under advisement, humoring him because he once saved her from a mugging.
This is gravy for the brain.
A little while later, Jerry is grabbed by spooks and shoved into a black van. He is taken to a nondescript location and interrogated by Dr. Jonas (Patrick Stewart) with the use of mind-altering drugs, strobe lights, and other forms of torture. He manages to escape by biting Jonas' nose, and convinces Alice to help him to figure out who is out to get him and why, while staying one step ahead of the FBI, CIA, NSA, MIB, and other letters of the alphabet.
CT is scripted by Brian Helgeland ("Assassins") and helmed by Richard Donner, who directed Gibson in the "Lethal Weapon" series and "Maverick". It is a film that suffers from a split-personality disorder-- the tone of the movie shifts between extremes from scene to scene, sending the movie to hurdle several genres in a single bound. In one scene, the film depicts the budding romance between Jerry and Alice. The next scene is an irreverent look at action-movie conventions: such as Jerry knocking out an FBI agent and then asking if he's pretending; the FBI agent answers 'yes' and Jerry knocks him out again. The scene after that would be one of horrific violence, such as the disturbingly surrealistic interrogation scene. This then asks the question: is CT an action-adventure? an action-comedy? a romance? The answer is unclear. The pacing is similarly uneven, with the movie grinding to an excruciating halt at several points.
Gibson does his "Lethal Weapon" foaming-at-the-mouth-shtick in CT, which manages to help make Jerry a somewhat likable character. The romance elements of the story play on Roberts strength in that genre, and help give some backbone to the otherwise listless performance as action heroine, showing once again that Roberts is out of her domain in the suspense/thriller (further examples of this can be seen in "Mary Reilly", "Pelican Brief", and "Nothing But Trouble"). And it's good to see that Patrick Stewart is getting work between the "Star Trek" movies.
But it is in the writing where CT probably disappoints the most. Though the movie integrates many popular conspiracy theories into its plot, such as the J.D. Salinger novel "Catcher in the Rye" being used as a trigger for government assassins, there are many gaps in the logic of the story that are inexcusable. They range from the slightly annoying (Alice actually tolerating a nut like Jerry who repetitively barges in uninvited to her workplace) to the gaudy (the reason for Dr. Jonas wanting to capture Jerry seems to change over the course of the movie, the sudden revelation of the motivations of an FBI agent, or black helicopters dropping a hit squad into a busy New York intersection). And dialogue like the following doesn't help either:
If the intelligence community is a family, think of us as the uncle no one talks about.
Still, CT does manage to entertain, and there are enough twists and turns (though contrived) to keep your interest, even through the slow stretches. But to enjoy this film, you must push the pre-release hype from your mind, and lower your expectations of this event movie.