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'Conspiracy': Suspicious Minds

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Aug. 8, 1997

If you believe the CIA killed Marilyn Monroe, then the lumbering "Conspiracy Theory" will make those itty-bitty transmitters in your teeth tingle. Others will be put off by this all too glib political thriller about a New York cabbie tormented by selective amnesia, psychedelic flashbacks and the awful belief that he is the puppet of some sinister, government cabal.

Mel Gibson, who is reunited with director Richard Donner of the superior "Lethal Weapon" series, builds on the role he played in the buddy action pictures. Only in this case, he’s not just a little bent from busting bad guys, he’s clearly in enormous psychic pain for all the laughs his paranoid obsessions bring.

By day, the reckless cabbie Jerry Fletcher shares his outlandish suspicions in regard to the Vatican, Freemasons, fluoridated water and Oliver Stone’s secret involvement with George Bush with his hapless, most often terrified passengers. At night, he combs the newspapers for evidence of conspiracies, which he exposes in his own newsletter, Conspiracy Theory.

In addition to the paper’s five subscribers, Jerry confides in Alice Sutton (Julia Roberts), a sensible attorney with the Justice Department who describes him as "a restraining order waiting to happen." Alice, who has repeatedly thrown him out of her office, invariably pooh-poohs his amusing, seemingly implausible predictions.

All that changes, however, when Jerry is kidnapped, drugged and tortured by the cold-blooded Dr. Jonas (Patrick Stewart), a government psychiatrist who seems to believe that Jerry knows something and is determined to extract it from the terrified taxi driver even if he has to drive the audience -- which is likewise bombarded with strobe lights -- insane in the process.

Jerry, who doesn’t know what he knows, does manage a daring escape and a later rendezvous with Alice, who also becomes a target of Jonas and his black-clad lieutenants as well as a second group of men in black. According to Jerry, both groups belong to the same agency, but are often at cross-purposes. Or something like that.

Although there is a romantic component, their relationship, unfortunately, is neither as interesting or complex as the plot. He’s a piteous, prattling ninny and she, as in "Dying Young," plays his glowing helpmate.

A hybrid of the brainwashing classic, "The Manchurian Candidate" and Geena Davis’s dreadful spy thriller, "The Long Kiss Goodbye," Brian Helgeland’s screenplay is intriguing, often funny, but it inevitably drags on too long. (One unnecessary, not to mention self-serving digression finds the hero playing cat-and-mouse with a posse of covert operatives in a darkened theater. On the screen is director Donner’s 1985 medieval costume epic, "Ladyhawke.")

With it’s many knotty connections and complex exposition, the movie is definitely something of a muddle, but for that matter so are most conspiracy theories. On the other hand, it does air a pervasive and not unfounded public preoccupation with government accountability. The CIA’s illegal experiments with LSD, the Iran-contra affair, campaign funny money, they’re all part of the film’s subtext, which happens to be its greatest resource.

It never hurts to be reminded that just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean that they’re not out to get you.

CONSPIRACY THEORY (R) — Contains violence and profanity.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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