One of the most misused words in contemporary English — apart from "surreal," which is not an appropriate adjective for winning "American Idol" unless Randy Jackson turns into a talking llama who shoots time and space out of his eyes — is "campy."
Camp, in its purest form, refers to something that was created in all seriousness but through whatever failures of aesthetic accidentally turns into comedy. If you set to make something outrageous and over-the-top, then it's outrageous and over-the-top; it only gets to be campy if comedy was not what you meant to do.
The "Hairspray" musical, despite the presence of John Travolta in drag, is not camp; "Glitter," for trying to pass off Mariah Carey as a serious actress before she was ready to become one, is.
Which brings us to “Red Lights,” a tale of supposed psychics and hard-bitten skeptics that’s so overwrought and underwritten and nonsensical and flat-out looneypants that I’m not sure whether you should run toward or away from any theater that happens to be screening it. Fans of all-star catastrophes are advised to see it early and often.
Researchers Margaret (Sigourney Weaver) and Tom (Cillian Murphy) spend their days debunking paranormal activity, even though the unnamed university at which they toil spends a lot more money on Dr. Shackleton (Toby Jones) and his investigations of psychic abilities. The granddaddy of all mentalists, Simon Silver (De Niro), emerges after decades away from the spotlight; he’d retreated from the public eye after a journalist out to expose him as a fraud died of a mysterious heart ailment.
Tom wants to expose Silver as a fraud, but Margaret is reluctant to take him on directly. Eventually, Silver agrees to have Shackleton and his team do a scientific study of his abilities (which run the gamut from spoon-bending to psychic surgery), although Tom remains convinced that Silver is gaming the system. All of this culminates in Silver’s giving a sold-out performance while Shackleton is finishing up his study and Tom is trying to find a flaw in his methodology — during, no kidding, a dark and stormy night.
But what about the mysterious hallway with the titular red lights? Or Margaret’s comatose son? Or the bizarro occurrences that suggest Silver might not be faking? And how does Tom’s new girlfriend (Elizabeth Olsen) play into all this? These are among the many questions that writer-director Rodrigo Cortés (“Buried”) raises but never bothers to resolve. He’s too busy leading up a socko ending that makes not one whit of sense with what’s already happened in the movie, but by that point, it’s almost impossible to remain engaged in the film because it’s been so loopy throughout.
Between De Niro hamming it up (even compared to other hammy De Niro performances), and the awkward flashbacks of young Silver (Eugenio Mira, looking like an “SNL” cast member trying to do a De Niro impersonation), and Victor Reyes’ oppressive score, and the constant references to “our city” (to cover up the fact that Barcelona is doubling for the U.S.) and the hideous cinematography (by Xavi Jiménez) that shoots beautiful women like Weaver and Joely Richardson in the worst light possible, “Red Lights” is a colossal fiasco from start to finish.
But it’s not the “That’s My Boy” kind of disaster, which slinks away into distasteful memory; this is a brass-band flop, the sort of movie that eventually makes its way to audience-interactive midnight screenings. “Red Lights” is one of the worst films of the year, but it accidentally emerges as one of the summer’s funniest comedies. Especially in theaters that serve alcohol.