Jerry Fletcher (Mel Gibson) is totally insane. Not the half-insane, half-joking Mel Gibson of the Lethal Weapon series, but a completely raving paranoid schizophrenic. And he’s the hero! Welcome to Conspiracy Theory.
Jerry is a New York City cab driver, so in other words, he fits right in. When he’s not espousing his latest theories to his passengers, or writing them up in his newsletter, he’s busy stalking the beautiful Justice Department attorney Alice Sutton (Julia Roberts). Alice thinks he’s just a harmless kook, unaware that some of his ramblings may be the truth.
However, others are keeping closer tabs on Jerry. Soon, mysterious black-clad government individuals try to capture Jerry, and the even more mysterious Dr. Jonas (Patrick Stewart) takes a keen interest in what Jerry knows, and whom he has told. Of course, the only one Jerry can turn to for help is Alice, who reluctantly gets drawn into his paranoid world.
Mel Gibson glides through his role Jerry Fletcher, flirting with playing him over-the-top. His characterization is entertaining, but lacks the depth Gibson has given to his recent roles. Julia Roberts is better than you might expect as the attorney who is the object of Jerry’s devotion, though her unthinking devotion to the insane is somewhat inexplicable.
The script, however, is nearly as schizophrenic as Jerry’s character. At times it strives for bombastic comedy, at others it tries for psychological terror. It works best when it works in synchonicity with Jerry’s mind, showing us the crooked paths of the conspiracies all around him and letting them unravel. (The film stumbles here occassionally, however, when it gets confused and starts believing its own red herrings. There’s one character here whose motivation ends up relying on a circular argument.) The script is at its worst when it leaves Jerry’s POV to give us the expected elements of a romantic thriller. Many of its serious-minded action scenes don’t quite work, or end up seeming goofy when they’re surrounded by the humorous attitude that pervades the film. (Carter Burwell’s overdone score doesn’t help matters here, either).
Through it all, the film has a lot of good details, but only comes up with one good twist. Brian Helgeland’s script knows where it wants to go, but doesn’t know how to get there. Instead, the film sets up an unwinnable situation, then relies on strings of forced coincidences to get the characters off the hook.
When all is said and done, I give a mild recommendation to Conspiracy Theory. It succeeds more often than it fails, and when it’s working, the film’s twisted web becomes crystal clear.