Hollywood is addicted to lawyers. From courtroom showdowns to the neat way a new case can introduce audiences to a mystery, the profession lends itself to fruitful dramatic interpretation by our coked-up dreamweavers. In this column we join hands across the internet to eulogise films with a connection, often an unforgivably tangential one, to the law.
This week is the turn of Conspiracy Theory, a misfiring mishmash of zany comedy, thriller and romance which stars Mel Gibson. Even when the film was released in 1997, those elements didn't gel particularly well. Today, viewed through the prism of Gibson's fall from grace, it is a squirm-inducing horror show. Which actually makes the film a lot more interesting to watch. Before sugartitsgate, Conspiracist Theory was a mediocre also-ran. Viewed today it is a rich tapestry of clanging alarm bells, unintentional awks and shrill dog whistles. In short, a joy.
Theory No. 1: it was the Jews
Julia Roberts co-stars as Alice Sutton, a justice department lawyer who can't bring herself to call the cops on Gibson's character even though he has a troubling fixation with her. In an early scene she mutters that he is a "restraining order waiting to happen."
This film was the canary in the coal mine
America's Sweetheart is no stranger to the world of movie lawyers. In The Pelican Brief she played a 24-year-old law student, in Erin Brockovich she's qualifed, and she's back to the courtroom in the upcoming Train Man. None of these roles, though, force her to take a whacky trip with Gibson. Here are six reasons to watch it unfold:
1. In Conspiracy Theory, Mel Gibson played himself.
We didn't realise it at the time. Until ten years ago Gibson was, as far as the public was concerned, spotless. He was pure A-list, taking names in Lethal Weapons, capering in What Women Want. But a drunken run-in with the cops in 2006 brought Mel's carefully constructed persona crashing down, along with his career as a leading man. Gibson was exposed as, at best, an alcoholic with an anger management problem and at worst a raging, racist, women-hating anti-Semite.
This new information recast the hero of all those films we loved as 'Creepy Dude'. Unless you're blessed with a four-year-old's ability to suspend disbelief, Gibson's predilection for mugging now comes across as an unfunny bully's demand for laughter. His impressions of a loon do not look like an impressive stretch. Romantic scenes invite the memory of his phone call to his ex-wife in which he told her, "You look like a fucking pig in heat, and if you get raped by a pack of n*****s, it will be your fault."
All these newly-polluted fragments of Gibson's shtick are on display in Conspiracy Theory, but the most interesting thing about his character, cab driver Jerry Fletcher, is how extremely close it is to the modern conception of what Gibson is actually like. A tinfoil hat-wearing loonbar, in between regaling fares with his latest paranoid delusions (which, tellingly, Gibson supposedly ad-libbed), Jerry spends his time cutting up newspapers and drawing links between stories for a newsletter called Conspiracy Theory. The 90s equivalent of a birther who writes a blog about the dangers of vaccines, Jerry's obsession is "them." 'They' are the powerful, mysterious cabal who pull the strings of our world, who have no names and all the power. As Jon Ronson explains in his eponymous book, 'them' is often invoked as a codeword for 'the Jews'. Given Gibson's explosion in 2006 that "fucking Jews" are "responsible for all the wars in the world" it feels like dinner at Mel's when Jerry explains to Alice that 'they' are "families that have held wealth for centuries", who "monitor everything," and "feed us terrorists to create fear."
|Warning: Mel at work|
In 1997, Jerry managed to avoid coming across as genuinely dangerous because Gibson was playing him. In 2016, Gibson's involvement makes him look like the next Unabomber.
2. Mel Gibson drowns Patrick Stewart with a mop.
And then Roberts unloads a pistol into him. Patrick Stewart plays the bad guy, and his secret base is a derelict power station. There is nothing in it except broken masonry, rusty plumbing and dust. But also a mop. It's not clear why there is a mop. No-one has done any cleaning in this abandoned building for years. It's been emptied. There's no furniture. There's no equipment apart from Patrick Stewart's set of mind control syringes (this film is complicated in stupid ways). There are a few gunmen but none of them look like they wanted to tidy up the place a bit because they knew they were going to be patrolling it all night and chaining Mel Gibson to a pipe. So who brought the mop? No-one knows. But in the film's climax Jerry grabs it and suddenly Patrick Stewart, esteemed thespian, Captain of the Enterprise, Professor X, a Knight of the Realm, finds himself getting his face all mopped up.
And his mouth.
Mel channels one hundreth of the hatred he feels towards the critics who gave The Patriot a bad review, and you
Patrick Stewart has played Prospero, Macbeth and Othello. Early in the film Jerry bites his nose off.
"Yes yes I smell awful."
I hope he got a big cheque.
3. Louis Litt is in it.
This reason is only going to fly with Suits aficionados, but one hour, forty four minutes and fifty seconds into this crapfest Louis Litt appears. For some reason he is dressed as a security guard, even though he would have been an associate by then. But he is just as Louis Litty as ever. In his meager three lines he manages to simultaneously convey 'peeved', 'nervous', 'evasive', 'suspicious' and 'cocky'. Also, his sole purpose is to turn on the lights.
|Yes, that's right|
Conspiracy Theory literally got Litt up
4. Lauryn Hill appears on the soundtrack.
For some reason Lauryn Hill performs a rap about conspiracy theories over the end credits. Although perhaps it's not that surprising. Like Gibson, subsequent events suggest she probably bought into all the crackpot fantasies underpinning the film. Like Gibson, both are hugely talented, both made ill-judged remarks, both claim they were misconstrued as racist and both are beset by personal demons which have transformed them from stars into pariahs. Both are now politely turned away from smart parties.
5. Julia Roberts does no law.
Alice has a job, she has a secretary, she has a boss, she has apparently no work to do. Every time crazy Jerry turns up at the office, she has no problem meeting him round the back of the building, hopping on a bus with him, or visiting his house of nightmares which he's rigged to burst into flames. At least in The Pelican Brief shewrote a brief about pelicans. In Conspiracy Theory Alice allows a green ink madman to dominate hours of her time. When I worked at the courts there was a gentleman who wrote complaints in a spiral, in crayon. I didn't spend too long on them. Alice would have leapt in his van and gone careening off to Ipswich on an adventure without a second thought. The public sector is forgiving, but it's not that forgiving.
6. Roberts and Gibson have a toxic relationship.
Jerry straight up stalks Alice. Not in the modern, revisionist sense, which has seen commentators suggest that it's somehow creepy of John Cusack to stand outside a girl's house with a stereo until she takes him back.
|"Accept you love me."|
No, he stalks her in the traditional sense, sitting in his car outside Alice's apartment night after night staring at her through binoculars.
And he has a collage he made out of stolen photos of her. You know, like a serial killer. This behaviour is explained away as an unshakeable urge Jerry has to 'protect' Alice which was triggered when he was programmed to assassinate her father, but couldn't go through with it because, as mentioned above, this film is complicated but stupid.
It is not a convincing excuse for stalking, but in 1997 Gibson was so popular he could play dodgy kooks like Jerry and audiences would buy them as troubled sweeties.
Now, not so much. Gibson’s twinkly-eyed charm looks like the calculated affectation of a misogynist who sweeps you off your feet then confiscates your phone, bans you from seeing your friends and beats you for having imagined affairs. If only Alice had seen Sleeping with the Enemy, she would have spotted the signs. And there are quite a few. Jerry barges into her office to babble that NASA is controlling earthquakes to kill the president.
|"Honey, I'm homicidal!"|
Later, he staggers in covered in blood, holds the security guards at gunpoint and screams at her that he bit off Patrick Stewart's nose. She also discovers that he was hired to kill her father and that he's been watching her for years.
She keeps coming back. At the end of the film Alice, who thinks Jerry has died, goes horse-riding, and discovers a badge pinned on it which belonged to the unhinged pest. Realising he must still be alive, creeping around in the vicinity, she should immediately fill her jodhpurs and gallop to the nearest police station. Instead she is absolutely delighted.
While she rides, Jerry secretly watches her through a hedge.
When she dumps Jerry they will never find her body.
When to watch Conspiracy Theory: Conspiracy Theory is the perfect date movie if one of you is there against your will.
Fun fact: Before filming began, Gibson sent his leading lady a gift-wrapped, freeze-dried rat as an "introductory prank".
Rating: Four Mads out of Mel.
More 'Reasons to watch':
12 Angry Men