What Went Wrong with Tom McCarthy's 'The Cobbler'?

It’s been six months since Tom McCarthy’s latest, “The Cobbler,” was excoriated by critics in Toronto, but the sting has yet to wear off. What Grantland’s Wesley Morris called a “crime against cinema” currently has a pitiful 8% rating on Rotten Tomatoes (it’s at C- on Criticwire and at 54 Metacritic), and while the film’s star, Adam Sandler, has ample experience with reviewers’ sharpened pencils, McCarthy’s failure here comes as quite a shock.

UPDATE: Image Entertainment opened “The Cobbler” simultaneously in 20 theaters and on Video on Demand, scoring just $24,000 with a tiny per screen average of just $1,200.

READ: Arthouse Audit: ‘It Follows’ is Horror Hit, and Tests Radius’s VOD Plans 

As a writer-director, the former actor’s three previous films (“The Station Agent,” “The Visitor,” and “Win Win”) comprise a loose trilogy that impressed critics with their nuanced observations of everyday life. Writing about “Win Win,” yours truly called McCarthy “a master of middle-American quiet,” and I meant every word. With “The Cobbler,” however, in which the titular shoe repairman (Sandler) discovers that he can inhabit his customers’ bodies by wearing their shoes, it appears that McCarthy’s lost the finely honed balance of realism and eccentricity that defined his other efforts.

Despite faring poorly with critics in nearly every role he’s played since Judd Apatow’s “Funny People” (2009), Sandler doesn’t seem to be the problem. As several writers note, Sandler is hard-pressed to elevate the tone-deaf material, which somehow manages to be both uninteresting and offensive, particularly when it comes to sex and race. It may be that McCarthy and co-writer Paul Sado failed to find the right way into the offbeat narrative, and Morris’ review in particular focuses on just how ill-suited McCarthy’s unassuming aesthetic is to the fantastical element in “The Cobbler.”

Yet it seems likely that “The Cobbler” will be remembered as an unfortunate blip in McCarthy’s directorial career, rather than the beginning of a decline. His next film, “Spotlight,” returns to the grittier sensibilities that brought him to prominence: it depicts The Boston Globe investigation of child molestation in the city’s Catholic archdiocese, creating a global scandal from which the church has yet to recover. The film, starring Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Stanley Tucci, Liev Schreiber, Billy Crudup, and John Slattery, sounds like a winner, and it’s slated for release later this year.

Read excerpts from reviews of “The Cobbler,” in theaters today: 

Andrew Barker, Variety: “Of the many things that go horribly wrong with [Sandler’s] latest, ‘The Cobbler,’ none are even remotely his fault…The new film is certainly visually and formally similar to McCarthy’s past efforts, but it bears little of their warm, wise humanism; in fact, it can best be described as a poor cousin to Sandler’s 2006 comedy, ‘Click,’ with the jokes and the stabs at moral inquiry removed.”

Gary Goldstein, Los Angeles Times: “As the movie is a comedy in theory only, Sandler delivers an appropriately obedient, understated performance. But because we learn so little about Max, and because Sandler’s not playing the folks he morphs into (those actors wanly attempt to ‘play’ Max), there’s a limit to what the actor can accomplish.”

Wesley Morris, Grantland: “In two days at Toronto, [‘The Cobbler’] had achieved the kind of odious renown that inspires people to shake their heads and wave both hands while wincing and leaning back from you… The movie Thomas McCarthy has made plays up realism at the expense of reality. It doesn’t feel enough like a fable. The movie enjoys the obscenities and grit and the occasional impaling stiletto. The human dramedy of McCarthy’s ‘Win Win’ and ‘The Visitor’ really struggle to surface.”

Amy Nicholson, LA Weekly: “Max Simkin is the ultimate Sandler creation: miserable, unappreciated, dateless and too developmentally arrested to do a damned thing about it… ‘The Cobbler’ has invented a new category of terrible: cruel schmaltz.”

Peter Travers, Rolling Stone: “It’s a toxic smear of curdled whimsy… The film is beyond awful and beyond repair.”

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