The problem with a movie titled Conspiracy Theory is that if you take it too seriously, the whole movie becomes a joke (like JFK, to some extent). Don’t take it seriously enough, and your action movie becomes a farce. Richard Donner (who directed Mel Gibson in the Lethal Weapons and Maverick) found the right balance.
The Manchurian Candidate, 1962, John Frankenheimer, for a creepier look at "conspiracies."
Gibson plays Jerry Fletcher, a cabbie who talks the ears off his passengers about all sorts of conspiracies, including black helicopters, manufactured earthquakes, and Roswell, NM. I say that Donner found the right balance because the opening sequence shows that Jerry is a nut. He’s not mean or angry, just hot for conspiracies. The important thing is that the movie doesn’t take him too seriously or too threateningly so he can be our sympathetic hero.
Still, Donner went too far in exposing us to Mel’s character. By the time we see the tapioca in the locked container inside the padlocked fridge, we say “duh; we got it.”
Soon, though, we see that Jerry is right to be paranoid. He is put through a Clockwork Orange-type of treatment at the hands of a diabolical Dr. Jonas (Patrick Stewart). At this point, we’ve already accepted the movie’s setup, so the problem here is no longer plausibility, but emotional direction.
As Jerry tries to escape, tense serious music plays, indicating the tone for the scene. But visually, the scene is pure slapstick: Mel Gibson is strapped to an old wooden wheelchair, eyelids taped open, moving as fast as he can (not very fast), wildly waddling his feet to roll the chair, while the incompetent bad guys slip and slide and never quite catch up. It’s the Keystone Kops on acid and, with a little circus music, would be a great bit of comedy. But the music tells us it’s not funny, so someone somewhere didn’t do their job — either composer Carter Burwell or Donner.
Julia Roberts is worked into the movie as Alice Sutton, the object of Jerry’s obsession. When Jerry is able to prove to her he’s right about one conspiracy (none of the big ones, though), she teams up with him out of pity, curiosity, and professional duty (she’s a public defender[?]).
The movie really hums along for a while when Jerry and Alice both flee and pursue the mysterious “them,” but that pace doesn’t last. Too soon, the movie bogs down in details, and for the last hour, we keep waiting for the pace to pick up like it did in the middle act. The movie was probably 30 to 40 minutes too long.
By now, there have been many other reviews of Conspiracy Theory, and they are mostly unfavorable. For the most part, they are right, but they are probably too harsh. Conspiracy Theory does have its moments. But you may have to sift to find them.