Watching Hook inspires one question: What the hell has happened to Steven Spielberg? The director who seemed heir to the great narrative moviemakers of the Hollywood studio years — who could blow jaded audiences away with sheer craft — now has trouble telling a story straight. Thanks to his past smashes, his name continues to outdraw most actors’. But where Spielberg’s movies once zipped like jets, they now drift rudderlessly. Where they were lean, they’re now bloated. Where they engaged real, human emotions — despite subjects like aliens and killer sharks — they now seem as grand and empty as a politician’s promise.

Don’t believe it? Rent Hook on a double bill with anything from the first half of Spielberg’s career, before he became imprisoned as the Prince of Hollywood. Try E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jaws. Better yet, rent Duel, the 1971 made-for-TV suspenser that was the 24-year-old director’s first feature-length film. It’s a natural match with Spielberg’s latest; they’re both about the domestic male salvaging his humanity (not to mention his life) under duress. But where Duel leaves you breathless with its genius simplicity, Hook plays like the most expensive, least personal Father’s Day card in the store.

Hook, on the other hand, is all Meaning, even if Spielberg tries to cover his tracks by filling the screen with pushy, big-budget mayhem. The central idea is fine — that the storied Peter Pan (Robin Williams) has grown into a charmless yuppie who must rediscover his childhood if he wants to rescue his son from epicene Captain Hook (Dustin Hoffman). It’s the execution that’s shockingly graceless. The Spielberg touch is present only in the early scenes that dramatize Peter’s distance from his kids. Certain to make little viewers itchy, they still play more honestly than anything that comes after. But as soon as we get to Neverland, Hook turns into a clunky, saccharine inspirational primer. Visually, it’s a chocolate mess, with immense sets and crowds of extras thrown at the viewer willy-nilly. The effect is that of a theme park designed by Hiëronymus Bosch — and a guarantee of eyestrain on video’s smaller screen.

There are two reasons to sit through the bombast. Hoffman’s Captain James Hook is a creation of actual wit, a cross between a Jacobean stage villain and Mr. Magoo. And Charlie Korsmo, as Peter’s young son, Jack, pulls off the same stunt here that he did in Dick Tracy: By playing his part with unforced ease, he makes all the cartoons surrounding him look that much flatter.

The saddest aspect of Hook is that it feels as if it were prompted by a genuine mid-life crisis. Something may be missing in Spielberg’s life, and this could be his attempt to address it. But the central myth he’s peddling here — that children are vessels of innocence, that the road to adulthood represents one corruption after another — is a hokey Victorian conceit that insults both children and adults, even as it flatters kids and plays off their parents’ guilt.

So if Hook isn’t the answer to Spielberg’s career funk, what would be? Well, he could do worse than to find a script with relatively few frills and restrict himself to a penny-ante budget. Hitchcock did it with Psycho. Maybe Spielberg should direct under a pseudonym. Whatever it takes to remove the pressure of being ”Steven Spielberg” and regain the sinewy confidence of Duel, The Sugarland Express, and Jaws — movies that, in their maturity of craft and unpretentious human drama, remain more adult than The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun, Always, and Hook. Spielberg’s problem isn’t that he needs to regain his childhood. It’s that he needs to grow back up. D+

  • Movie
  • 144 minutes