Single Person’s Movie: Conspiracy Theory

It’s 2 a.m. and you awake with a jerk, alone in your fully lit apartment and still on the couch. On TV, the credits of some movie you’ve already seen a billion times are scrolling by. It feels like rock bottom. And we know, because we’re just like you: single.

Need a movie to keep you company until you literally can’t keep your eyes open? Join us tonight when we pass out to Conspiracy Theory [starting @ 8 p.m. on Encore]

Why we’ll try to stay up and watch it: Ah, the summer of 1997, a time when being on the A-list actually meant something to the bottom line. Back then, the formula was simple: Need someone to play the president, call Harrison Ford (Air Force One, $172 million); got a romantic comedy that could use some help, see if Julia Roberts is around (My Best Friend’s Wedding, $127 million); John Woo is making an action flick that calls for two over-the-top performances, try Nicolas Cage and John Travolta (Face/Off, $112 million). And then there was Conspiracy Theory, a comedy-thriller-drama-action hybrid about a deranged lunatic who romances an apparently very busy Ms. Roberts. Who could possibly walk that kind of tightrope and still believably woo Julia? Only Mel Gibson.

It might be hard to remember, especially now that Mr. Gibson has become tabloid fodder for being a philandering, alcohol-abusing, anti-Semite (take your pick!), but there was a time when the intense Aussie was one of the world’s biggest movie stars. True story! The last film he headlined, 2002’s Signs, grossed upward of $227 million at the box office. To put that in perspective, if Signs was released this summer, it would currently rank as the fourth biggest hit of the year. It wasn’t just his drawing power, though, that made Mr. Gibson such a star: If you separate the art from the artist (something the entire planet seems more than happy to do with regards to Michael Jackson), then Mr. Gibson is one of the more talented A-list leading men in Hollywood, able to play rugged machismo, silly goof-off or serious-minded dramatist. In Conspiracy Theory, he’s forced to do all three.

Say what you will about Richard Donner’s overlong film, which completely degenerates in the final 30 minutes as it lurches toward an unearned happy ending, but Mr. Gibson is quite amazing throughout. As Jerry, conspiracy theorist extraordinaire (the stuff Jerry worries about seems quaint by comparison to some of the post-9/11 theories out there now), Mr. Gibson seethes, sputters and maniacally twists him words into pretzel-like contortions—most of the time Ms. Roberts (sullen, red-tressed) just stares at him, mouth agape. It’s the type of performance that you don’t see very much of nowadays: Mr. Gibson allows himself to be maddening and grating and he takes chances most stars wouldn’t dream of.

When we’ll probably fall asleep: A funny thing about Conspiracy Theory from Ms. Roberts’s standpoint: It’s yet another in a long-line of action-y dramas that found her playing second fiddle to her male counterparts. (Sorry, Julia, don’t think we’ve forgotten I Love Trouble with Nick Nolte!) That she has now graduated to the front of these movies—her character in Duplicity was more of the “male” in the relationship with Clive Owen—is comforting. Still, it’s funny to see her taking the backseat in Conspiracy Theory. So we’ll make it to 9:59 p.m., 59 minutes into the film, when Julia’s Alice heads to Jerry’s apartment, and despite many (many) creepy circumstances, seems to warm to his charms. Hollywood: Helping mismatched stars meet cute for one hundred years.

Single Person’s Movie: Conspiracy Theory