Is there a more tantalizing near-miss, on paper, than A Day at the U.N.? A Marx Brothers movie directed by Billy Wilder from a screenplay by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond? If only, right?

Sure. If only Chico hadn’t been seventy-three and a year away from the grave at the time of the film’s development (1960). If only Harpo hadn’t been seventy-two and retired (and a few years removed from the soil himself). If only Wilder and Diamond had invented a time machine big enough to transport themselves and the U.N. back to an alternate 1933 where Duck Soup was a runaway box office smash. Could’ve been a keeper.

But imagine if the film had been made in 1960. Consider the depressing spectacle of three septuagenarians chasing after each other at breakhip speed, or Groucho pitching ribald woo to a seventy-eight-year-old Margaret Dumont. Think about the out-of-breath line deliveries, the squinting at cue cards, or the labored attempts at youthful comedic anarchy at a time when leering vulgarity was the order of the day (courtesy of Lenny Bruce et al). This isn’t one of The 50 Greatest Movies Never Made; it’s a potential nightmare of elder abuse akin to an arthritic Sterling Hayden being forced (seemingly at gunpoint) to sprint up several flights of stairs in Piers Haggard’s Venom. Its non-existence is a miracle of good judgment in a town where professional desperation all too often breeds humiliating vanity projects.

If only. If only George Lucas had embarked on that indie film career he’s so fond of discussing. If only Harrison Ford had agreed to play an aging, alcoholic Matthew Scudder in Joe Carnahan’s A Walk Among the Tombstones. If only Steven Spielberg had said “No thanks, George, I’m not into corpse fucking.” Then a trusting, wide-eyed, helplessly nostalgic audience might’ve been spared the shockingly listless spectacle that is Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

“Spectacle” is misleading; aside from the lively opening credit sequence, wherein a group of hot-rodding teens challenge a truckload of mirthless Russians to a drag race across the New Mexico desert, there’s precious little grandeur on the screen. Though the film leaps right into the action (which is in keeping with the series’ m.o.), there’s a soundstage-bound quality that deflates one’s initial exuberance at seeing Indiana Jones cracking his whip and evading tight spots for the first time in nearly twenty years. Everything feels a full-step slower: the vehicles smash into each other at visibly survivable speeds (there’s no sense of velocity anywhere in this movie), while Indy jogs out of trouble with the age-conscious gait of a Hall-of-Fame outfielder shagging fly balls at an old-timers game. When the film is really cooking, it’s like watching Arnold Palmer tee off at The Masters for two-plus hours. And since the malarky about strange, magnetized sarcophagi and the over-explicated Crystal Skull of Akator – note to Lucas: true “MacGuffins” don’t require pages and pages of droning exposition – evokes as much intrigue as a lost tube sock, one can’t help but obsess on the lack of vitality. These guys don’t have it anymore. Not for this kind of foolin’ around.

This would be excusable, and maybe even poignant, if David Koepp’s screenplay (based on a story by Lucas and Jeff Nathanson) was interested in dealing with the melancholy of old age. To be fair, there are a few pang-inducing moments (a portrait of Marcus Brody looming in the background as Indy learns of his involuntary sabbatical; a statue of Marcus Brody being defiled by an out-of-control automobile; Indy wistfully gazing upon a headshot of Sean Connery from The League of Extraordinary Gentlemenand a picture of Marcus Brody), but they are so insultingly forced that they ultimately work against the movie. The film does find a lurching third gear with the introduction of Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf), which leads to the film’s only recapturing of the bygone Indy spark (it begins with Dr. Jones getting dragged off the back of a motorcycle, and ends with him brawling his way back onto that motorcycle); but Spielberg quickly dashes any hopes of sustained enjoyment by hustling professor and greaser off to Peru, where a set-to with spooky-looking natives in a graveyard gives way to an interminable lecture on crystal fucking skulls.

If the first three films in this venerable franchise took their lead from film and television serials, it wouldn’t be unduly snarky to suggest that this fourth installment is heavily indebted to radio serials. The amount of screen time wasted on protracted, ominous-sounding history lessons gets downright comical after a while. Spielberg hasn’t been this disinterested in visual storytelling since The Lost World, and he certainly hasn’t been this unconcerned with pacing since Hook; it’s as if he’s challenging his audience to get bored during an Indiana Jones movie. He needn’t challenge for long: the film’s flabby midsection frustrates goodwill and leaves one yearning for an end to this cynical moneymaking enterprise. If Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull truly is, as Spielberg claimed at Comic Con, for the fans, then he’s made his Contempt (with Lucas as his Jeremy Prokosch).

The film does pick up a bit down the stretch with an intermittently-inspired jungle chase that entails half-speed swashbuckling, flesh-eating giant ants and amphibious vehicular shenanigans. But the momentum dies the minute Indy and the gang (including a struggling-to-give-a-shit Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood) reach the ancient depot of the crystal skulls. For a while, the action set pieces are just pedestrian; then there’s a scene where Indy tries to whip-drag Ray Winstone’s Mac to safety when the portly turncoat could easily waddle his way out of trouble. It may be the most clumsily-staged sequence in Spielberg’s career.

Goes with the movie, which is his worst. Everyone who’s written a positive review of this movie will regret it in a year.

3.0 out of 10