Downsized Discontent

What is it about Frankie Valli's "Can't Take My Eyes Off You" that wrenches the heart a little? Though the song seems charmed in itself--from the cool and melancholy French horn league over the first eight bars to the Jersey vocalist's shrill desperation in the bridge--I can't really listen without thinking of The Deer Hunter and the prewedding revelry of its opening scenes. It's one of the great dance sequences in the movies, if far removed from the elegant fantasia of the Hollywood soundstage.

The setting is a cavernous bar in Pennsylvania steel country, after the end of the third shift. The Steelers are crushing the Eagles on the overhead TV. Christopher Walken scoot-steps in place alongside the pool table with cue in hand, lip-synching to Frankie. He crooks his elbows like packaged poultry, and conducts a semiprivate white boogie. De Niro sinks the five ball in the corner pocket. Everyone is getting falling-down drunk before they leave for Vietnam the next day. The bartender kisses the future bridegroom on the cheek in an ebullient embrace and someone in the room says "faggot." It's a querulous and imperfect innocence that's going to be lost in the next three hours on screen.

And now, 19 years later, director Richard Donner has staked his own claim to "Can't Take My Eyes Off You"--and to a new kind of American Eden, too--in the Mel Gibson pseudo-thriller, Conspiracy Theory. Gibson plays Jerry, a cab-driving paranoiac who prints his own conspiracy sheet culled from newspaper arcana. Fluoride in the water. Semen samples below Rockefeller Center. Black choppers soundlessly surveilling. It's a pretty typical sampler from the crackpot handbook, but then, in some ways, Jerry's a pretty typical guy. One of his more normal, red-blooded hobbies, for instance, is obsessively spying on a pretty woman--Julia Roberts.

We're introduced to her character, Alice Sutton, through half-drawn blinds and a picture window. Gibson idles curbside, binoculars raised, while Frankie Valli pines for his own distant Juliet: You're just too good to be true, can't take my eyes off of you. And of course, we can't either, as Donner drags this voyeuristic sight gag from close-ups of Gibson's famed baby-blues to Roberts, jogging on a treadmill, all legs and bare midriff.

The next day, Jerry visits Alice at the federal attorney's office where she works. She hears out his spiel about Turkish earthquakes and space-shuttle assassinations with no small patience, perhaps because she too is driven by inner demons: the murder of her father, a prominent judge. But this is no woman-in-danger tele-pic, and so Jerry must switch from affable stalker and jeremiah-at-large to team player against the forces of evil--that is, CIA psychiatrist Dr. Jonas (Patrick Stewart, taking psychopathy cues from Olivier's Nazi dentist in Marathon Man) and his anonymous, armed cohort. But then what person would sensibly trust a CIA psychiatrist who reads Latin phrases off his Harvard class ring to impress women in hospital cafeterias? Not Julia Roberts, who here displays her usual talent for portraying a naïveté that never quite bleeds into dumb. Roberts has an edgy kind of empathy to her in these early scenes--and that's good, because I, for one, have run out of patience with Gibson's Vulnerable Loner persona.

Gibson and Donner have been trotting this character out for more than a decade now, and I'm reluctant to admit that they do have some knack for it. This latest incarnation harkens back to the old days, when Gibson was just a hardbody lethal weapon and not an Oscar-winning auteur. You may recall that this character, Martin Riggs, made a habit of sucking on the barrel of a gun, in a loony display of death-lust. It was a cheap film stunt, and another (inadvertent?) tribute to The Deer Hunter and its lurid--if also problematic--Russian roulette episodes.

But then, one must remember that Lethal Weapon arrived in wake of the Rambos and Platoon in a national upsurge of veteran-awareness. We'll call it Vietnam chic. In point of fact, Gibson's own family emigrated to Australia when Mel was 12, in part to spare its sons from the draft. Gibson, not surprisingly, has played down this coincidence. Officer Riggs, in the words of partner Danny Glover, "worked in the Phoenix Project in Vietnam--assassination stuff." This explanation for Riggs's grief seems hyperbolic, though--as if ordinary enlistment wouldn't have offered a sufficient smorgasbord of trauma. Eventually, Gibson and Glover would prove that an excellent buddy and tremendous firepower could heal the scarred psyche--and maybe even a collective shame too. Call it one short step down the road toward revisionism.

About another hop-skip-and-a-jump into Conspiracy Theory, we learn that Jerry too has taken a degree in the assassination arts--although this time, our loopy hero has been unwittingly programmed to do so. Which might explain why things like road construction induce lysergic freak-outs--you know, the kind of historico-hallucinatory montages that have become a trope in everything from A Clockwork Orange to Billy Joel videos. Alice and Jerry, we learn, are merely pawns in an underground battle for global domination. It's the old thunderdome showdown: the baronial families vs. the transnational corporations. What team Dr. Jonas is quarterbacking--and where Bill Gates and the cable monopolies fit in--remains sadly undisclosed.

All of this makes for a lot of chase scenes--on motorcycles, across bridges, through burning buildings--and most of them are fairly good. There's a mechanical pleasure to be found in this film and its highly competent march from clue to clue. And though Donner and screenwriter Brian Helgeland may lack the courage (or the test-audience results?) to make Conspiracy Theory as hard and mean a picture as it seems to want to be, it has at its best a sense of disorientation and anxiety that favorably recalls director John Frankenheimer and The Manchurian Candidate. What is most frightening and resonant about that film is its characters' lack of self-knowledge--both individually and collectively--resulting in psycho-political peril. It recalls the maxim of the chronic neurotic: I know I'm paranoid--but am I paranoid enough?

Conspiracy Theory, for all its surface cynicism and facile narrative intrigue, is probably not paranoid enough, and ultimately seems reactionary as a result. A generation ago, films like The Deer Hunter attempted a naturalistic reckoning with some ineffable sense of betrayal and loss. Today, we've returned to an encrypted expression of a downsized discontent. The tawdry catalog of national transgressions has been sublimated yet again into a kind of secret history--a batch of crimes and smaller horrors committed by rogue agencies and arch villains.

And Mel Gibson is caretaker of this amnesia: a perpetual adolescent struggling to come to terms with his personal victimization. He mugs. He weeps. He scours his soul. Hollywood seems determined to go back to the future: Whether that's a working theory or a full-blown conspiracy remains to be seen.

Conspiracy Theory starts Friday at area theaters.

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