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It’s wildly hypocritical, but a Hollywood thriller about a conspiracy nut is also a snappy idea. After all, few have profited so much from the American appetite for conspiracy theories as Hollywood filmmakers. This month alone, government functionaries collude against the common good in Spawn, Cop Land, and G.I. Jane. Why not turn the tables, even if the goals are mere entertainment and massive profit? Especially if the script offers a mainstream hack like Richard Donner a chance to tweak the most flamboyant Hollywood director of his generation, Oliver Stone.

Conspiracy Theory does provide that opportunity, although in the contemporary Hollywood-hybrid manner it attempts to be much more: satire, drama, action, romance, special-effects showcase, even a psychedelic freakout. Like My Best Friend’s Wedding, the movie matches Julia Roberts (playing Manhattan-based Justice Department attorney Alice Sutton) with a boyishly charming but unsuitable potential mate: paranoid cabdriver Jerry Fletcher (Mel Gibson). He’s suspicious of the Vatican, worried about black helicopters, convinced that the new $100 bills are tracking devices, and sure that NASA is planning to kill the president by activating an earthquake from outer space.

Jerry publishes a newsletter (circulation: 5) that recounts these speculations, and he maintains an extensive archive in his well-secured warren of a Soho apartment. He regales his passengers with his conjectures, and regularly visits Alice to try them out on her. (She’s unconvinced, yet inexplicably willing to listen.) A few other things about the puppyish Jerry: He’s stalking Alice, observing her in her apartment through binoculars, and he’s having hyperspeed-montage flashbacks straight out of Natural Born Killers, complete with glimpses of cartoon characters (though not Rodney Dangerfield).

Then Jerry is kidnapped and brutally interrogated by the mysterious Dr. Jonas (Patrick Stewart). Jerry escapes and runs to Alice, who is beginning to believe that some intrigue is indeed at work. But has Jerry alarmed a secret cabal by printing the truth in his newsletter (titled, as imaginatively as the movie, Conspiracy Theory)? Or was he actually involved in some clandestine operation he himself no longer remembers?

It’s the latter, of course, which means the film’s setup is just a tease. The cabdriver who earnestly (if unconvincingly) explains that Oliver Stone worked for George Bush as a disinformation agent—the film’s only fresh conspiracy is, naturally, a Hollywood one—turns out actually to be a highly trained agent who used to be part of a really, really secret program run by Dr. Jonas. That explains where Jerry picked up the skills he’ll use for the next 90 minutes of fight and chase scenes, if not why he’s obsessed with The Catcher in the Rye, talisman of Hinckley and Chapman. (And how’s this for nefarious government surveillance: When Jerry buys a copy of Salinger’s book at the Union Square Barnes & Noble, information on the purchase goes straight to the CIA. Another reason to shop only in independent bookstores.)

Brian Helgeland’s script has much more plot to unravel, but it’s all perfunctory. Once the intermittently witty notion of Jerry the crackpot is replaced by Jerry the semibrainwashed superagent, Conspiracy Theory becomes a virtual remake of Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder, albeit with less flair and a more prominent love interest. (Michael Collins needed Julia Roberts to defeat the English, so how could Jerry possibly confront the CIA without her?) And after the mocking Natural Born Killers-style freakouts stop, the film also loses its sense of style. The first half-hour is the flashiest work Donner has ever done—check out the window-reflection opening credits—but the rest is as routine as the film’s yeah-whatever politics.

Helgeland’s jumbled scenario may convince a few credulous viewers that rogue agents of the U.S. government are messing with the psyches of handsome, good-natured New York cabdrivers. But the film’s only genuine target, Oliver Stone, is unscathed. If JFK wasn’t good history, it was compelling filmmaking. One reason for that is conviction, which is something Donner’s movie utterly lacks. Whatever Conspiracy Theory’s audience believes about black helicopters and tracking devices in $100 bills, it’s clear that neither the movie nor its lead character really gives such notions any credence.

If there’s anything scarier than an American director with a huge special-effects budget, it’s an Australian director with an old record collection. Scored principally to slick ’70s soul and disco—such as the Barry White song that provides its title—Love Serenade is another tale of spunky antipodean losers whose lives are as pathetic as their musical tastes. Like the ABBA-marinated Muriel’s Wedding, Love Serenade begins in a dreary small Aussie town. Unlike Muriel, however, Dimity Hurley (Miranda Otto) and her sister Vicki-Ann (Rebecca Frith) never escape. Writer/director Shirley Barrett does contrive a final moment of triumph for the siblings, but it’s hardly justified by what comes before.

The two sisters share a house, daily lunches, and an interest in fishing, but little else. Vicki-Ann, a pushing-30 beautician set on finding a husband, is pretty wacky, but the “nearly 21” Dimity is outright strange. A waitress in a Chinese restaurant largely untroubled by customers, Dimity lives in a fantasy world. Then Ken Sherry (George Shevtsov), a much-divorced DJ fleeing cosmopolitan Brisbane, takes over the town’s one-man radio station, lubricating the local airwaves with Barry White, Billy Paul, Van McCoy, and Gwen McCrae. Musing portentously about his life, Ken reveals a laid-back ’70s philosophy that segues neatly into such message oldies as Les Crane’s “Desiderata” and Dionne Warwick’s “What the World Needs Now Is Love.”

Vicki-Ann is thrilled when Ken moves into the house next door; to her, the outmoded (and unfriendly) hipster represents big-city glamour. Dimity doesn’t know who Ken is, but takes her sister’s enthusiasm for her own. After Ken rebuffs Vicki-Ann’s initial overtures, Dimity goes to his house, awkwardly undresses, and tells him she’s a virgin. Later, at lunch with Vicki-Ann, Dimity announces that the DJ is now her boyfriend. Shocked and enraged, Vicki-Ann moves in on him. Soon, Dimity is sitting on the couch, waiting for Ken and her sister to unlock the door to his bedroom.

Somehow, this is all supposed to be Ken’s fault, and Barrett has devised a drastic punishment for him. Yet the aging DJ’s crimes are more musical than sexual. He may deliver a seducer’s patter on the air, but he makes no effort to lure the sisters to his home. Indeed, he could hardly keep them out if he tried. His indictment for crimes against womankind makes no more sense than the subplot, in which Dimity’s boss (a Chinese-Australian nudist and Glen Campbell fan) begins to suspect that Ken is not really human—as if any of the characters are.

Barrett’s first feature, Love Serenade, was produced by Jan Chapman, who has supervised much better films by Australian women directors, including Jane Campion’s The Piano and Gillian Armstrong’s The Last Days of Chez Nous. (The latter featured Otto.) Inspired by (and filmed in) Chapman’s husband’s hometown, the film revels in dilapidated structures, outdated fashions, and desiccated landscapes. It’s a place where dreams crack in the blazing sun, but then Vicki-Ann and Dimity’s dreams were cracked to begin with. Otto, Frith, and Shevtsov inhabit Barrett’s odd caricatures with great conviction, but let’s face it: The person who does the most to animate this meager comedy is Barry White.CP