Tuesday, September 15, 2009


Veteran Hollywood film producer Dore Schary once said actors prefer to play crippled characters because such unsavory roles afford them the opportunity to explore their thoughts about their own identity. Movie superstars love to indulge themselves in vanity projects that reflect this eccentric facet of their personalities. In the cinematically polished, but complicated amnesiac mystery-thriller “Conspiracy Theory” (*** OUT OF ****), Mel Gibson impersonates a flaky New York cabbie named Jerry Fletcher. Although he imitates the formula action hero he limned in the “Lethal Weapon” movies, “Conspiracy Theory” qualifies as a vanity project because Gibson plays an everyday citizen instead of a crusading cop. Moreover, Jerry is not tightly wrapped. Forrest Gump and he might have hit it off okay. Jerry’s prone to fits of anxiety and paranoia. Sometimes the least little thing will touch him off. As Jerry, Gibson acts perfectly rational one minute but totally loony tunes the next instant. If incarnating such a Bohemian character were not enough, Gibson models his hare-brained hack on the sarcastic Warner Brothers character Bugs Bunny. At one point, Jerry compares his antics to those of the Road Runner, but at heart he’s clearly a Bugs kind of guy. “Conspiracy Theory,” on closer inspection, emerges as a rather lengthy Merry Melody cartoon, with villainous Patrick Stewart sharing some characteristics of Elmer Fudd, Bug’s perennial adversary, while Julia Roberts appears as a Tweety Bird of sorts.

The cartoon comparison seems valid when you consider the outrageous elements in Brian (“Assassins”) Helgeland murky script, along with Mel Gibson’s self-depreciating humor. Jerry’s cluttered apartment resembles Bug’s hutch, and this cabbie has an escape hatch that Bugs would truly envy. Jerry loves to play pranks and he pulls one in the tradition of “American Graffiti on the spies who are supposed to track him. At other times, Jerry outsmarts himself like Bug’s often does and gets caught. Patrick Stewart’s first encounter with Jerry is straight out of “A Clockwork Orange.” Before the interrogation ends, Jerry has bitten Dr. Jonas’s nose and is careening about in a wheelchair screaming hilariously at the top of his voice. Gibson’s Jerry proves as much a Houdini as Bugs is in his escapades with Elmer.

As written by Helgeland, “Conspiracy Theory” is hard to follow because he throws out enough red herrings to pickle the plot. Is Jerry sane or looney? Is Dr. Jonas a good guy? Who are Jerry’s real enemies, and who are his friends? What really happened to Jerry? There is enough plot in “Conspiracy Theory” to keep you guessing hopelessly if you don’t pay close attention to the story. Jerry thinks that the conspirators are after him for something that he stumbled onto, but is that why they want him dead?

During the opening credits, we get to watch Jerry blitz his passengers with his crack pot conjectures. For example, he believes the metal pins in new hundred dollar bills are really tracking devices. He complains, too, that Benjamin Franklin on the new bills resembles the love child of Rosie O’Donnell and Fred Mertz, (“I Love Lucy’s” next door neighbor). Or that the fluoride in the water does not promote our dental health but is rather to break down our mental health. Jerry publishes a conspiracy theory newsletter, but only five people subscribe to it. “The good conspiracy is an unprovable one,” he tells Julia Roberts. Jerry scans the daily newspapers for any trace of a cover-up. Early in the film, Jerry is convinced that NASA is going to kill the president, so he visits Federal attorney Alice Sutton (Roberts) to warn her about the plot. At first, Sutton thinks Jerry is a polite wacko, until she starts to see some of his warning signs.

Enter Dr. Jonas (Patrick Stewart), an urbane, bespectacled Harvard shrink who desperately wants to lay his hands on Jerry. Patrick Stewart plays Dr. Jonas with a Borg in his eye. Stewart’s commanding presence lends credence to his villainy. Jerry, it seems, participated as a Jonas experiment in mind control program along the lines of the 1960’s paranoid thriller “The Manchurian Candidate” where the Chinese brainwashed U.S. troops and turned them into assassins. Jonas tried to make Jerry into a killer, but his efforts proved futile. Somehow, somebody else grabbed Stewart’s subjects, and he has been trying to catch Jerry since to learn who stole his technology. Meanwhile, another super secret agency represented by Hatcher (Cylk Cozart) has been keeping tabs on Jerry to capture Dr. Jonas. In the middle stands federal prosecutor Alice Sutton who has just been told to stop investigating the murder of his father a federal judge. Although she reluctantly believes Jerry initially, later she comes to hate and fear him.

Director Richard Donner and Helgeland are careful to present Jerry as a mad as a March hare hero. Meanwhile, they construct Alice Sutton as the paragon of intelligence and sanity. The character that Julia Roberts plays is indispensable. She proves that Jerry is paranoid, but she realizes eventually that his paranoia is justified. “Conspiracy Theory” is really two stories woven into one. Jerry Fletcher searches as much for his own sanity as Alice Sutton does the murderers of his father. That’s the other plot. Alice Sutton’s father, a federal judge, has been murdered and she refuses to give up the investigation. Integrating these two apparently unrelated plots together into a smooth, unobtrusive way forces scenarist Helgeland and director Donner to add about a half-hour’s worth of story to the film.

Since the filmmakers dump all this convoluted narrative onto you with as little exposition as possible, you may find “Conspiracy Theory” more than a little overwhelming. “Conspiracy Theory” struggles to be “North by Northwest” with a sprinkling of “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.” Although the writing falters toward the end, the uniformly excellent cast gives first-rate performances, and director Richard Donner conjures up every neat trick to promote the suspense and the excitement. Perhaps the worst thing about the story is the profusion of hush-hush secret agencies that participate in this derring do. When Donner and Helgeland run out of initials, they compare spy networks to relatives.

Since actor Mel Gibson teamed up with his favorite movie director Richard Donner, who called the shots in the exhilarating “Lethal Weapon” trilogy, he has gravitated more and more to the kind of screwball hysterics emblematic of the Warner Brothers cartoons of Bugs Bunny. Mel Gibson has probably been dying to play someone like Jerry Fletcher ever since he did his “Lethal Weapon” movies. Riggs and Fletcher share similarities. Both characters were assassins before they became either cop or cabbie. Although Fletcher qualifies as a quasi-action hero, he is also somebody prone to bouts of uncertainty. Although Gibson’s Riggs character in his “Lethal Weapon” actioneers hovered near schizophrenia, Mel’s cabbie Jerry Fletcher in “Conspiracy Theory” emerges as a full-blown schizophrenic. Jerry Fletcher experiences episodes of wise-cracking sanity and insightful clarity before the schizophrenia buried deep inside his disturbed psyche shatters his self-control and leaves him helpless and vulnerable.

Actress Julia Roberts has more to do than just stand around and look like a pretty woman in “Conspiracy Theory.” As a hard nosed Federal prosecutor, she gets to shoot guns, ride horses, and talk her way out of tight-spots with the FBI. Gibson and she develop real chemistry when they go on the run. While Jerry gets to play hero in the first part of the film, Alice Sutton gets to dominate the heroics in the second half.

John Schwartzman’s cinematography deserves special praise. The opening credit sequence with its array of neat, weird, and cool camera angles is memorable. The various Dutch-tilted camera shots in the action scenes help generate excitement. If you want to see an example of textbook perfect cinematography and matchless editing, “Conspiracy Theory” boasts both, with an upbeat, atmospheric music score by Carter Burwell.

Richard Donner has been directing television shows and motion pictures since the late 1950s. “Conspiracy Theory” is so competently made that it glides along despite its inordinate length. Donner confines the action to warm offices, dark alleys, rain swept streets, dim apartments, and musty hospital rooms. Stealth helicopters in the whisper mode cruise the skies above Gibson’s Jerry Fletcher. To emphasize the theme of reality versus illusion, Donner aims Schwartzman’s cameras on reflective surfaces. One of the best is a chopper deploying four men reflected in the window where Jerry huddles to hide his face. Helgeland and Donner keep our hero and heroine hopping from one skillet to an even larger skillet. The explosive attack on Jerry’s apartment and their escape is a cinematic tour-de-force.

Ultimately, all it boils down to is Mel Gibson. He gets to play a resourceful hero and a sympathetic victim. We are rooting for him the entire time, because there is no way Mel Gibson can be a crook. As charismatic as Gibson is as Jerry Fletcher, you cannot mistake his insouciant wit as anything other than a Bugs Bunny gesture. Now, if Mel had only uttered: “What’s Up, Doc?”

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