A below-par star vehicle for Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts, "Conspiracy Theory" is a sporadically amusing but listless thriller that wears its humorous, romantic and political components like mismatched articles of clothing. Appeal of the lead thesps will carry this mild suspenser a certain distance in the marketplace, both in the U.S. and overseas.

A below-par star vehicle for Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts, “Conspiracy Theory” is a sporadically amusing but listless thriller that wears its humorous, romantic and political components like mismatched articles of clothing. Appeal of the lead thesps will carry this mild suspenser a certain distance in the marketplace, both in the U.S. and overseas, but the dream-teaming of two of Hollywood’s most attractive actors won’t be the cash-cow it could have been had the material and treatment been right.

Pic reps the fifth collaboration of Gibson and director Richard Donner, and the “Lethal Weapon” series is thrust into the viewer’s mind by the opening scene, which has wild-eyed (and erratically driving) New York cabbie Jerry Fletcher (Gibson) amusingly ranting to assorted passengers about the diverse conspiracies he believes are being perpetrated on the public by anyone and everyone in positions of power.

But once Jerry is seen voyeuristically lusting for the lovely Alice Sutton (Roberts) via binoculars as she works out behind open blinds, then barging into her office at the Justice Dept. and returning home to an apartment teeming with papers and featuring a padlocked refrigerator with individually locked canisters of food within, it becomes clear that the man has at least one foot off the beam.

Jerry puts out a photocopied newsletter forwarding his theories, and as soon as the latest issue, containing some particularly wild charges about the CIA, is sent to all five subscribers, Jerry is abducted and, in a semi-comic sequence, torturously interrogated by the determined, deadly serious Dr. Jonas (Patrick Stewart). Continuing the quasi-humorous approach, Jerry manages to get away by biting the doc on the nose (which forces Stewart to play the rest of the picture a la Jack Nicholson in “Chinatown”), setting up the cat-and-mouse pursuit format of the remainder of the overlong film.

The playfulness with which the paranoid elements are treated provides some passable diversion; “The Catcher in the Rye” is neatly positioned as a common point of reference for serial killers, Jerry shrewdly notes that virtually all assassins have three names, and one in-joke suggests that Oliver Stone worked as an agent of disinformation for George Bush. Gibson and Roberts also provide enough energy, wit and sheer star-power to keep the audience hanging on, even when the tonal elements begin clashing unpleasantly.

The question of why Alice, whose federal judge father was murdered in suspicious circumstances, allows the creepy Jerry to continue pestering her is eventually answered satisfactorily, although she freaks out when the uncouth obsessive abruptly declares his love for her. But the hide-and-seek game between Jerry and the CIA, with Alice ricocheting between the two, simply goes on too long and becomes too formulaic in its good-guys/bad-guys posturing, despite the continued gags.

A particularly needless detour takes Jerry, who is trying to elude some goons, into a movie palace (downtown L.A.’s Orpheum), where a virtually packed house is watching, of all things, director Donner’s 1985 medieval costumer “Ladyhawke.” Sequence would seem to take self-homage rather too far.

A major revelation 90 minutes in about Jerry and Jonas’ past relationship throws the story into new perspective, and further twists, which turn the film almost, but not quite, purely serious, create a measure of doubt as to how things might turn out; against tall odds, screenwriter Brian Helgeland and Donner manage a commercially palatable, if dramatically preposterous, semi-upbeat ending.

This is a film in which all things — government conspiracies, threats to people’s lives, the possibilities of love — are treated lightly, even glibly. Having done so many actioners, Donner seems to want to send up, and even avoid, some of the genre’s more tired, and tiresome, elements: At one point, Alice forestalls what seems sure to become yet another car chase when she politely waves the pursuing car alongside her, and later, Jerry cuts short another potential pursuit with some fancy rigging of the vehicles involved.

One can readily sympathize with such gambits, as well as with the director’s desire to inject the picture with as much humor as possible. But he tries to have it every which way in the end, and the conflicting moods and intentions never mesh comfortably.

Gibson and Roberts sail through the proceedings easily, while Stewart is disappointingly one-note as the CIA heavy. Cylk Cozart has an amusing role as a government agent upon whom the leads are always able to get the drop.

Technically, film is as smooth as can be, with Carter Burwell’s lively and inventive score demonstrating that unusual things can be done to give unexpected and imaginative punctuation to even the most generic action.

Conspiracy Theory

Production

A Warner Bros. release of a Silver Pictures production in association with Shuler Donner/Donner Prods. Produced by Joel Silver, Richard Donner. Executive producer, Jim Van Wyck. Co-producers, Dan Cracchiolo, J. Mills Goodloe, Rick Solomon. Directed by Richard Donner. Screenplay, Brian Helgeland

Crew

Camera (Technicolor, Panavision widescreen), John Schwartzman; editors, Frank J. Urioste, Kevin Stitt; music, Carter Burwell; production design, Paul Sylbert; art direction, Gregory Wm. Bolton, Chris Shriver (N.Y.); set design, Lauren Cory, Joseph G. Pacelli Jr., Thomas Betts; set decoration, Casey Hallenbeck, Leslie Bloom (N.Y.); costume design, Ha Nguyen; sound (Dolby/DTS/SDDS), Tim Cooney, James Sabat (N.Y.); associate producers, Ilyse Reutlinger, Julie Durk; assistant director, Jim Van Wyck; stunt coordinator/second unit director, Conrad Palmisano; second unit camera, John M. Stephens; casting, Marion Dougherty. Reviewed at the Galaxy Theater, L.A., July 30, 1997. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 135 MIN.

With

Jerry Fletcher - Mel Gibson
Alice Sutton - Julia Roberts
Dr. Jonas - Patrick Stewart
Agent Lowry - Cylk Cozart

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