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Review: Paranoia pays off for 'Conspiracy Theory'

photo strip August 7, 1997
Web posted at: 11:00 p.m. EDT (0300 GMT)

From Reviewer Carol Buckland

(CNN) -- "Conspiracy Theory" is the smartest thriller of the summer. It's a tense, twisted production that manages to be both ultra-commercial and strikingly unconventional.

The film begins rather slowly, tracking a cabbie named Jerry Fletcher (Mel Gibson). Jerry is given to regaling his passengers with paranoid ramblings about government plots, assassination schemes, UFOs and so on. He's also obsessed with a Justice Department attorney named Alice (Julia Roberts). Jerry clearly has a few screws loose.

Or does he?

Conspiracy Theory
video icon 5.3M/2 min 6 sec. QuickTime movie

A few swift plot developments make it plain that -- loony though much of what Jerry believes seems to be -- some very dangerous people consider him a threat. They are willing to do just about anything to shut him up. Alice becomes entangled in his warped world, trying to determine whether he's a basically benign nut, a seriously deranged killer, or the victim of a pernicious experiment.

Gibson gives a remarkable performance as Jerry. He's done borderline crazies before -- most notably in the "Lethal Weapon" series -- but this role is something special. Flashing from mood to mood -- laugh-out-loud funny, genuinely scary, pathetically unhinged -- he creates a character who manages to retain a core of humanity even as he becomes completely unraveled.

Although this film makes shrewd use of Gibson's good-guy star power (casting someone like, say, John Malkovitch would have turned this into a total creep fest), it treats him like an actor rather than a visual icon.

Having burnished her bankability by reverting to the "isn't she adorable" mode in "My Best Friend's Wedding," Roberts reasserts her theatrical chops as Alice. She brings a compelling mix of intelligence and vulnerability to her role. She also clicks well with Gibson.

Patrick Stewart does strong supporting work as a mysterious CIA "psychiatrist" who may be very, very evil, sort of good ... or somewhere in between.

Brian Helgeland's script is as clever as it is convoluted. Sure, there are some major jumps in logic and more than a few loose ends. But the story will hold your interest from start to finish.

Director Richard Donner has worked with Mel Gibson four times before. Their professional comfort level shows. Donner knows when to let his star run wild and when to rein him in. The pacing is sharp, the "look" of the picture elegantly offbeat.

"Conspiracy Theory" is not in the league of my all-time favorite paranoid picture "The Manchurian Candidate." But it is plotted to provoke and executed to entertain.

This film is rated R. There's considerable violence and a great deal of strong language. Although Gibson and Roberts develop a romantic attachment, they go no further than a chaste kiss.

 
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