'The Cobbler' transforms obvious puns and literal-minded platitudes into a full-fledged debacle
The Cobbler Image Entertainment
Director: Thomas McCarthy
Screenplay: Thomas McCarthy and Paul Sado
Starring: Adam Sandler, Steve Buscemi, Method Man, Melonie Diaz, Dan Stevens, Lynn Cohen, Kim Cloutier, Dustin Hoffman and Ellen Barkin
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 39 minutes
Now playing in limited release and VOD
(out of four)
Not that we should be giving out trophies for effort or participation, but I find myself with a small amount of appreciation for Thomas McCarthy's The Cobbler. Make no mistake, The Cobbler is a bad movie. "Bad" might even be kind. But it's a movie that actually tries. It just fails. Severely. I saw it on the heels of seeing a small handful of others that showed no such effort, even if they were otherwise better than this (I won't name names, but one of them I reviewed for this very publication!).
As misguided as the film is, it at least tries to have an imagination, tries to do something with a crazy idea. Which is more than I can say for ... well, I promised I wouldn't name any names, but suffice it to say that it, too, involves magical footwear. It's also more than I can say for most Adam Sandler movies of late. At least with this one he's trying to step outside his comfort zone. (I'd rather see a thousand failures like The Cobbler than one more Jack & Jill.)
Point being, in the spirit of what I've written before about good and bad ideas, I don't think there's anything ostensibly wrong with making a film about a cobbler who can physically transform into other people when he puts on their shoes. Crazier ideas have worked. This one just never finds its footing. (Get it???) Writer/director Thomas McCarthy has a fine track record with the likes of The Station Agent, Win Win and The Visitor - he even co-wrote Pixar's Up! - but has never attempted anything with such a daunting conceit. In this case, he gets going down a particular path and simply can't write his way out of it. He's guilty of a string of bad decisions rather than one giant folly. Once again, imagination gone awry is better than no imagination at all, so I'm more impressed with McCarthy's work than ... well, a certain tentpole director whose name rhymes with Schmenneth Schmranagh.
Despite ostensibly being a departure for Sandler, a movie made by a respected dramedy veteran* rather than someone from his stable of Happy Madison hacks, The Cobbler feels right in line with a particular strain of the star's back catalogue - namely Click and Bedtime Stories.
* Ditto his previous film, Jason Reitman's truly disastrous Men, Women & Children, which bombed spectacularly last October. As someone who very much admires his work in previous departures like Punch-Drunk Love and Funny People, I'm more than a little bummed these last two forays into new territory haven't panned out.
But the modest, character-centered story with the magical-realist twist gradually gives way as it strains to become something bigger and deeper - something cosmic. There simply isn't enough here to support that ambition, beyond the sheer curiosity of the idea itself. The movie can't help but fall apart.
Strange as it may sound, the fundamental problem seems to be a dogged commitment to a bad pun. Somewhere along the line, McCarthy (along with his co-writer, Paul Sado) stumbled upon some rather lousy wordplay, connecting the word "sole" (like for your shoes!) with "soul" (like ... y'know, your soul!) and voila! A screenplay was born. It seems that simple homophone paved the way for all of the screenplay's most egregious missteps. Instead of mining the concept for comedic opportunities, McCarthy instead found himself going for some sort of spiritual profundity. Which is kinda hard to pull off when you include a scene in which our hero takes on the guise of a black customer for the sole purpose (see what I did there???) of mugging a rich white guy. (This actually happens.)
The film actually opens in similar fashion to a genuinely profound film, the Coens' A Serious Man, with a mystical, sepia-toned Yiddish prologue, which in this case introduces us to a humble cobbler and the magical stitching machine that will change the life of his great-grandson, Max Simkin (Sandler), more than a century later. You want misguided? I'll give you misguided. The film reveals its true thematic inspiration when one character insists, "You should never judge a man until you've walked in his shoes." Somehow, the filmmakers thought it would be a good idea to take that old chestnut literally, and to make a movie in which a character literally walks in other people's shoes in order to understand and/or judge and/or save them. The mind boggles.
That's just one of many elements that prove to be awkward fits with the rest of the movie. (In fact, if I was a writer of this screenplay, I might make a hilarious joke about how the shoe doesn't fit. Or something.) The Cobbler detours into subplots involving gangsters and ruthless corporate land developers, all while fixating on Max's paternal abandonment issues dating back to his father's unexplained disappearance years earlier. It spends a fair amount of time setting up the importance of Max's beautiful supermodel neighbor Taryn (Kim Cloutier) and her dashing British boyfriend (Dan Stevens), seemingly for the sole purpose (there's that wordplay again!) of including a scene in which Max puts on the boyfriend's shoes in order to try to sleep with Taryn. When he realizes he can't go through with it, the two characters are pretty much dropped from the rest of the film.
At the very least, the haphazard effect appears to be a result of filmmakers working overtime to try to make certain ideas work. They just flat-out don't work. The only other palpable difference between this and so many previous Adam Sandler vehicles is that this one was made by a director who actually knows what movies are supposed to look like. So there's that. If, in the end, I can't respect The Cobbler's thought, attitude, storytelling, sense of humor or tone of voice, I can at least appreciate the effort and nerve it took to make a film this bad.