Smoke and Mirrors
Mental red warning lights should go off when Red Lights opens like a serious if at first very mildly comical Ghostbusters. Her university department’s funding cut the same as in those 1984 and 1989 hits, Sigourney Weaver is this time around Dr. Margaret Matheson, in a reprisal of her also-doomed no-nonsense Avatar scientist Grace Augustine.
Trundling along Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy), a rational man of facts much too gifted to be merely her assistant and driver, she investigates and debunks clairvoyant hucksters and their ilk, superciliously instructs even fuddy-duddy Psych Department chair Paul Shackleton (Toby Jones), teaches popular classes, and nurses a personal wound of her own. That scar that she shields is fatherless son David (Pablo Derqui), in a life-support coma for many years now since an inexplicable childhood collapse. Specifically, she recoils from her humiliating TV talk-show defeat in a pointed reference to that burden by her nemesis, Simon Silver (Robert De Niro, extending his string of ill-starred choices).
Showman and shaman, silver-haired and –tongued and blind, that wildly popular psychic-clairvoyant-faith healer-spoon bender has himself only just emerged from three decades of self-imposed retirement consequent on the fatal heart attack of Mark Wiener, an investigative reporter bent on exposing his fraudulence. Arrogance covered with theatrical modesty, the dapper paranormal mystic has already performed in packed ticket-scalped auditoriums in two cities, charmed hostess Nina Green and her live and television audiences, thrived on public ire over cancellations and on-and-then-off-again reschedulings, and is booked to appear on the big stage in an unnamed New York.
Directing from his own script, Rodrigo Cortés goes downhill in a story that, aside from improbabilities and impossibilities, goes limp in what is billed as a “mind-blowing conclusion” confrontation.
Poor judgment leads Matheson to try another TV panel show, where Silver’s sinister PR person Monica Handsen (Joely Richardson) coldly demolishes her on the same sore point as her client had in the past. That leaves Buckley to unmask the fraud -- or perhaps discover his true paranormal talents -- despite his boss’ frightened insistence that Silver not be tangled with.
In this he is aided by eager-beaver student Sally Owen (Elizabeth Olsen), whose contribution is mainly moral support, as even her great discovery from video tapes comes too late to influence what happens. Shoehorned in for unnecessary tepid love interest, she really is only a listening post for Buckley’s throwaway explanatory remark and is conveniently sent out of the way to her father’s house.
Shackleton’s foolproof controlled Scientific Paranormal Research Center test results are to be broadcast, confirming Silver’s uncanny abilities. Buckley races against time, at the man’s unconvincingly located headquarters above Leon Furs, in the auditorium men’s room, and in front of its rapt audience.
As the nonsense mounts, however, interest is lost in whether the clairvoyant is for real or not and why Buckley is driven beyond the call of duty to find out the truth. “How did you do that?” and why?
No one need mind that, such as they are, the answers arrive muted by less than impressive indoor pyrotechnics.
(Released by Millennium Entertainment and rated “R” for language and some violence.)