“Erratic” is one of the handful of adjectives that have stuck to Spike Lee throughout his career, and it’s been used in reference to both the ever-fluctuating quality of his filmmaking and his rhetorical recklessness as a public figure. In the past his excesses have fueled some of his most unforgettable work—take, for instance, the maddeningly ADD Jungle Fever (91), which all but drowns out its central biracial romance with outraged pronouncements on everything from drugs to colorism to filicide. In that film—as in School Daze (88), Crooklyn (94), and a few others—the director’s shaky control over his own worst impulses generates an anxious, go-for-broke energy, which turns out to be just what’s needed to undercut all the obsessive stylization and heavy-handed didacticism. That Lee would follow this past decade’s astonishing run of masterpieces (Bamboozled in 2000, 25th Hour in 2002, and 2006’s When the Levees Broke) with some of his sloppiest efforts to date just reconfirms that sense of unevenness fans and detractors have long since taken for granted.

Few films have captured the minor-key mood of contemporary America with more passion than those aforementioned mid-career triumphs. In them, Lee finally mastered the epic form he’d fumbled with in Malcolm X (92), filling it out with all the tonal complexity, moral gravity, and exquisitely orchestrated melodrama he could summon. Red Hook Summer is much more modest in scope, promising a return to the scrappy neighborhood feel of his early independent work—and if you didn’t know that already by how much has been written about the film’s small budget and tight shooting schedule, you’ll recognize the back-to-basics approach when Lee briefly reprises the iconic role of Mookie in an early scene. The themes that emerge—gentrification, pollution, religion, violence, drugs, unemployment—are as big as ever, though, and part of what’s enervating about this latest failure is the suspicion that, at the very moment he’s invited us to look back on his past glories, this prolific filmmaker has become bored of himself.

Red Hook Summer opens as 13-year-old Flik Royale (newcomer Jules Brown) moves from the comforts of his middle-class life in Atlanta to the housing projects of the titular Brooklyn neighborhood, where his mother wants him to spend vacation time bonding with his estranged grandfather (Clarke Peters). A preacher at a small local church nicknamed Little Piece of Heaven, Da Good Bishop Enoch Rouse butts heads with the precocious but cynical Flik, whose “frohawk,” suburban accent, and iPad set him apart from the locals and endear him to a feisty church girl named Chazz (Toni Lysaith). Not the sprawling, unruly cast of characters that have populated Lee’s Brooklyn-set films in the past, this community is compartmentalized into devout Christians and God-mocking young gang members. Both get their share of camera time to expound on the problems facing the neighborhood, but virtually none—not even an alcoholic deacon (Thomas Jefferson Byrd) or a stiff-upper-lipped grieving mother (Heather Simms)—become compelling as individuals.

Lee is among the few working directors who continually excel at evoking the complexities of love in the plural, which in his films encompasses the pride, hope, and disappointment a community feels as it reflects upon itself. In order to achieve this, he’s capitalized on one of his most obvious gifts as an extraordinary impresario of talent, and ultimately it’s difficult to figure out how much of Red Hook’s clunky construction can be chalked up not so much to a diminution in the director’s personal investment, but to the insufficiencies of his collaborators this time around. Even in Lee’s most muddled projects, it’s not hard to find an exciting performance, a quotable piece of dialogue, or some great music wafting in from the background. But there’s nothing like that to hold onto in the unrelentingly plodding Red Hook: the spellbinding rants have been replaced with anemically written sermonizing; the eye-popping expressionism of Lee’s previous cinematographers (particularly the brilliant Ernest Dickerson and Ellen Kuras) is rendered impossible by the film’s single-minded focus on cramped, almost stagey settings; and Bruce Hornsby’s piano-and-vocals score chokes on one too many adult-contemporary bromides.

Time and again, the film sets us up for an impassioned examination of hot-button issues, then serves up smatterings of half-hearted conversation recycled from yesterday’s headlines, meandering exchanges of down-home wisdom, and—as the film’s sole confrontation with gentrification—an inexplicably recurrent scene of a humorless white woman storming out of her apartment to chase down the two black children who have carved their names in her sidewalk. Lee shows a similar disregard for the more intimate aspects of this coming-of-age story, which means certain crucial details—such as the reason Flik’s mother has left him in Brooklyn during the summer—are left needlessly elusive. A narrative slackness settles in, and while some have identified it as a sign of a mature artist mellowing-out, others no doubt will get the impression of a great American filmmaker kicking up his feet and phoning it in right when we need him most.