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Thursday, June 23, 2016

Director Report Card: Richard Donner (1997)

19. Conspiracy Theory

I was into conspiracy theories once. To clarify, I was never truly a believer. Maybe there was something to the more grounded theories – JFK, the shadow government – but I never took them seriously. Mostly, it was the conspiracy theorist culture that fascinated me. They’re little pockets of people united by bizarre, often conflicting beliefs, building this chaotic world into something orderly with their mutual paranoias. I listened to Coast to Coast AM, lurked the occasional message board, watched a documentary about Alex Jones. Eventually, the pure toxicity of that world view pushed me away, even as just an observer. Yet that fascination with how beliefs in fringe theories form stayed with me. “Conspiracy Theory,” the fifth collaboration between Richard Donner and Mel Gibson, doesn’t explore the motivation or psychology of the conspiracy theorist very much. Instead, it’s a fairly standard thriller set around the fringes of the fringe.

Jerry is a New York cab drivers and a believer in a myriad of bizarre, detailed conspiracy theories. He happily regales his usually disinterested passengers with these theories and even published a news letter. Jerry’s sole friend in the world is Alice Sutton, a lawyer whose father died under mysterious circumstances. Alice usually humors Jerry, who harbors a crush on her. However, after Jerry successfully identifies several undercover CIA agents, people really start to come after him. There really is a conspiracy, with Jerry and Alice’s father at the center. Soon, the two go on the run, pursued by black helicopters and ominous men in suits.

As established above, the world of conspiracy theories is a diverse one. They range from the eerily plausible –  the government does hide stuff  – to the utterly batshit insane – shape-shifting lizard people control the world – to everything in-between. Disappointingly, “Conspiracy Theory” doesn’t choose one of these totally nuts beliefs as its jumping off point. Instead, the film is inspired by MK-ULTRA, a once real program surrounded by a heaping load of misconceptions. When you could have had Mel Gibson punching reptoids or fighting the New World Order, simply being wrapped up in a mind control plot isn’t as exciting. But “Conspiracy Theory” isn’t a kooky exploration of fringe beliefs. Instead, it’s of the same level as Gibson’s other nineties output. That is a mildly entertaining action/thriller.

I’ve been pointing out that Richard Donner tended to alternate between big action flicks and smaller scope dramas or comedies. “Conspiracy Theory” seems to stray from this pattern. Except the film is, in some ways, a comedy. When first introduced, Mel Gibson’s Jerry is rambling wildly about his bizarre theories. His monologues are obviously farcical, as he makes fun of militia movements or talks about the shiftiness of the Catholic church to a pair of nuns. There are repeated jokes in the movie, about Mel refrigerating his coffee or his belief that NASA will murder the president. Even after the film shifts to something more serious, there continues to be jokes. Like a genuinely amusing observation about how lone gunmen are always referred to by all three names.

“Conspiracy Theory” definitely plays Jerry’s paranoia for laughs. Until it doesn’t. After an especially bracing episode, he enters Alice’s law office with a gun. Alice manages to talk him down, the man collapsing in her arms, weeping. Later, while in Jerry’s home/secret bunker, she points out his bookshelf full of copies of “Catcher in the Rye,” a book notoriously linked to assassins. Jerry admits he’s never read it but that, whenever he sees a copy, he feels compelled to buy it. Suddenly, “Conspiracy Theory” becomes a compelling, realistic study of obsessive behavior. It’s a brief moment but a powerful one. The film needed a few more shocks like that.

“Conspiracy Theory” is probably most successful as a Mel Gibson vehicle. Casting Gibson as a nut-job back in 1997 seemed like an excuse to utilize his quirky sense of humor. Or allowing his leading man good looks to center a potentially off-putting character. Now, casting Mel Gibson as a nut-job makes a movie a documentary. Yet Gibson’s charm does make “Conspiracy Theory” a better film. Reportedly, Donner allowed Mel to ramble during Jerry’s various monologue scenes. He’s clearly having fun in those moments. When Jerry’s more pathetic attributes come to the surface, Mel is compelling in those scenes too. Joke all you want but Gibson’s sense of humor and humanity takes “Conspiracy Theory” further then you’d expect.

Of course, Mel is just one of two major box office stars in “Conspiracy Theory.” Julia Roberts co-stars as Alice. Roberts is good, alternating between incredulous at the crazy things around her to approaching the strange events with determination and toughness. However, the romance between Jerry and Alice makes the audience somewhat uneasy. Jerry is essentially Alice’s stalker. He waits outside her apartment, watching her exercise from the window. A secret room in his home is pasted with her photographs. He’s obsessed. This behavior is presented as creepy only up to a certain point. After a while, Jerry’s devotion begins to win Alice over. Man, I don’t think it works that. Gibson and Roberts’ chemistry helps paste over some of these uncomfortable qualities. Yet it can only go so far.

Because “Conspiracy Theory’s” ambitions are fairly limited, it’s faceless conspiracy with an infinite reach is controlled by one man. Patrick Stewart plays Dr. Jonas. Stewart’s authoritative voice combines with a blank suit and a pair of wire-frame glasses to become a face of abusive authority. His most chilling scene is when he calmly, nonchalantly explains how Jerry was programmed to become a killer. However, as the script progresses, Dr. Jonas becomes more of a traditional movie villains. He’s making quibs at the heroes and casually assassinating people. The script may not serve Patrick Stewart the best way but Sir Stewart is a professional and still manages to give an effective performance.

“Conspiracy Theory” is most accurately described as a thriller. However, I’m sure people going to a Mel Gibson movie in 1997 had certain expectations. Eventually, the film leaps into action movie theatrics. These shifts are often sudden. Jerry and Alice are discussing the plot in his apartment when black-clad soldiers repel from a helicopter. They fire a rocket propelled gas grenade into the building, leading to a large explosion. Gunfire breaks soon afterwards. There are other fight scenes and shoot outs in the picture, all of them on a similar level just outside the film’s previously established believably. Sometimes, these action scenes feel out of place. Other times, they don’t even make sense. Yes, the black helicopters are said to be silent. That doesn’t prevent people from looking directly overhead and seeing them.

This being a conspiracy centric film, there’s obviously going to be some twists and reveals. Yes, the movie hints that Jerry murdered Alice’s dad, a turn the audience can see coming as soon as his death is mentioned. Equally inevitable is how the story steps back that reveal, which it does somewhat awkwardly. That’s not too much of a problem because it’s expected. More disappointing is the reveal that the apparently on-the-level officer helping Jerry and Alice is a secret agent. And he’s a good guy. In a paranoid thriller, all the government agents would be assumed to be evil. The ending essentially has Jerry saved from one conspiracy by another one, an unlikely ending considering the story’s setting.

Watching Richard Donner’s films so close together has allowed me to see some of his trademarks. Despite often being considered a no-frills filmmaker, Donner does have some stylistic quirks of his on. He likes to emphasize dramatic moments with slow motion. That habit definitely appears in “Conspiracy Theory,” like during the attack on Jerry’s apartment or a cab chase scene. However, “Conspiracy Theory” features maybe the biggest stylistic flourishes of Donner’s career, since at least “Twinky.” Early on, Dr. Jonas ties Jerry to a wheelchair, tapes his eyelids open, and injects him with a psychotropic drug. The trip scene that follows features swirling colors, flashing lights, and inserts from Bugs Bunny cartoons. Some more moments like that would’ve made “Conspiracy Theory” more memorable and shown Donner’s often understated abilities as a director more.

“Conspiracy Theory” does have a pretty good score. Carter Burwell provides the music. The opening theme is surprisingly jazzy, with some soft trilling piano keys, a tapping cymbal rhythm, and a sweeping string melody tying it all together. Eventually, a brassy trumpet crescendo emerges. As the story develops, Burwell’s soundtrack becomes a more typical action movie score, focusing less on melodies and more on driving percussion. Even then, he still sneaks an occasional piano melody in. The soundtrack also makes good use of “You’re Too Good to Be True,” though I’m not much of a fan of Lauryn Hill’s cover, which accompanies the end credits.

"Conspiracy Theory" is not the most memorable of Richard Donner and Mel Gibson’s films together. The film definitely has its moments, including an entertainingly sincere Mel Gibson performance, a creepy villain in the form of Patrick Stewart, and a decent sense of humor about itself. Pairing genuine movie stars like Mel and Julia Roberts naturally led to good box office. As mildly diverting as “Conspiracy Theory” can be, a viewer can’t help but wonder about the better, more ambitious, interesting film that could’ve been made with the same premise. [Grade: C+]

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