Well, we’ll say this for “The Cobbler,”it’s probably the first anti-gentrification, magical shoe, Jewish fable in the history of cinema. But that’s about where the praise ends for this baffling misfire from Oscar-nominated writer/director Tom McCarthy. The filmmaker has previously taken seemingly slight loglines—a lonely train enthusiast dwarf forms unlikely friendships (“The Station Agent“), a man gets involved in the life of an illegal immigrant (“The Visitor“), a lawyer and a client’s grandson connect over wrestling (“Win Win“)—to turn out funny, yet deeply human comedies that are observant and insightful about the struggles of quirky, but ordinary and relatable characters. But “The Cobbler” sets a wacky tone early, and never deviates from it, taking the aphorism “you can’t know a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes” to gratingly literal and weirdly fantastical lengths.
Adam Sandler—playing weary, rumpled and sad-eyed again (also see “Men, Women & Children“)—leads the film as Max, a Jewish fourth generation cobbler, running a shop in New York City’s Lower East Side. He has reluctantly taken over the business after his father seemingly ran out on the family, leaving Max to also care for his mother, and as such, he’s never had the opportunity to follow his own path or pursue his own dreams. But Max gets the surprise of his life when one day a power outage forces him to use the manual stitching machine in the basement of the store. He soon discovers when he puts on any shoe stitched on that machine, he becomes the person who owns the shoes, at least physically. Essentially, he’s like Mystique, except he has to wear size 10 1/2 shoes for the effect to take place (and when he removes them, he instantly returns to his regular identity).
Thrilled at this opportunity to step into the ahem, soles, of others (metaphors!), Max initially has a grand time parading around town as other people. And while he initially uses his disguise to fulfill personal pleasures, such as seeing the hot woman who lives nearby the store naked in the shower (by creepily posing as her boyfriend), doing a dine and dash, or uh, visiting Chinatown as a Chinese person (!?), he soon tries to use his powers for good. That means trying to balance the scales with a local thug (Method Man), and doing what he can to help a local activist (Melonie Diaz) stop the creep of mega-corporate development (embodied by a sleazy real estate hawk played by Ellen Barkin) that is pushing out longtime businesses and residents from the neighborhood. And that sliver of thematic material might’ve previously been enough for McCarthy to say something meaningful within the context of genre conventions, but here he seems contented to simply pursue far more conventionally absurd narrative paths with dire results.
While McCarthy is likely trying to achieve some kind of magical realist screwball vibe, “The Cobbler” never generates the high-spirited inventiveness or energy to allow audiences to buy into the premise, in order to go along for the ride. While the idea is original, it’s also ridiculous, and the story is not close to clever enough to put it into any kind of context that is compelling, interesting or believable. The motivation for Max’s leap from tradesman/proprietor to socio-economic vigilante is poorly motivated, other than now obtaining a vague sense of purpose in his life. But it’s the film’s final ten minutes that push “The Cobbler” into something transcendently, almost spectacularly bad. A couple of plot twists and reveals try desperately to turn this fairy tale into something akin to legend, with enough transmitted that a door is actually left open for further sequels. Yes, “The Cobbler” becomes a sort of indie movie fantasy origin story. Seriously. It’s a card played that nothing in the rest of the movie even suggests, and is so utterly misguided it’s nearly jaw-droppingly remarkable. (Well, your jaw will drop at the miscalculation regardless).
It boggles the mind that McCarthy managed to get the cast he did—which also includes Steven Buscemi, Dustin Hoffman and Dan Stevens—only to waste them on something as featherweight as this. Granted, they are only as good as the material they get, but the ensemble is mostly adrift here, with only the continually underrated Diaz, whose turn as a slightly over-passionate advocate for the neighborhood, registers something near the tenor we’ve seen in previous McCarthy films. She’s both zealous and earnest, her commitment to the cause is very real, while the character is full of heart and simply real. She’s the lone silver lining of the movie, and there is a much better version of “The Cobbler” made up of more characters like this.
However, an uncertainty runs throughout “The Cobbler” that it can’t quite seem to shake, to form any kind of solid shape. Is it a zany comedy? An earnest attempt at a contemporary fable? A straight fantasy? Ultimately, the film tries to be all three, but winds up being none. Devoid of laughs, hokey and plodding, “The Cobbler” miss its marks wide and often, almost from the first frame. To say that it’s in need of repair would only be the start of addressing the multitude of problems the picture presents, because what it actually needs is a little more soul. [D]