TIFF 2014 Review: ‘The Cobbler’
Adam Sandler. Oh, Adam Sandler. At least you tried.
Every once in a while – not nearly often enough – Adam Sandler tries something fresh, working with serious filmmakers to create a movie that may or may not actually work, but at least gives him an opportunity to play a real human being. The most successful example of this was Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, which took Adam Sandler’s embarrassing man-child persona from the 1990s and found the real tragedy behind it, his the desperate need to be seen and heard by all the people who steadfastly refuse to take him seriously.
Twelve years later, another esteemed filmmaker seems to have taken a similar approach, repurposing Sandler’s current pop culture identity into a would-be indie gem. Unfortunately for writer/director Thomas McCarthy (Station Agent, The Visitor), Sandler’s recent persona as a middle-aged schlub who puts his life together after chance encounters with magical trinkets isn’t quite as rife for reimagination.
The Cobbler stars Adam Sandler as Max Simkin, the owner of a New York City shoe repair shop who discovers that he can transform into any of his customers if he wears their footwear. There’s a cutesy little metaphor there, but not an altogether a bad one, about learning to appreciate other people by putting yourself – quite literally – in their shoes, but although the characters in The Cobbler repeat that old axiom multiple times, McCarthy seems pretty disinterested in actually exploring what it means.
Instead, we get montages of Sandler using his newfound abilities to walk out on checks, mug a helpless bystander and almost have sex with his hot neighbor while he impersonates her boyfriend. The only thing that stops him from sealing the deal is the fact that, well, he’d have to take off his shoes. Our hero, ladies and gentlemen. What a putz.
There’s a germ here of a decent story. Certainly the pieces are in place. Max Simkin is apathetic towards the gentrification of his neighborhood, which is being purchased by a corrupt real estate mogul played by Ellen Barkin. But rather than use his newfound abilities to explore that neighborhood and gain a greater appreciation for the community – values repeatedly espoused by his potential love interest, a local activist played by Melonie Diaz – he simply uses them at the end to impersonate the bad guys and try to save the neighborhood through trickery. Even his day spent as Barkin’s right-hand man, played by Method Man, reveals nothing unexpected or sympathetic about that character: it turns out this big jerk who is trying to ruin the neighborhood is, in fact, when no one is looking, still just a big jerk.
Maybe it was a mistake to try to turn The Cobbler into a last minute superhero movie, complete with shocking violence. Maybe they should have committed to the sweeter side of its premise, revealed in a touching scene where Sandler uses his powers to make his mother happy again. Or maybe it was a mistake not to go completely nuts with this premise and turn a hapless Adam Sandler into a righteous crusader, subverting the well-known conventions of the genre on a disarmingly smaller scale. But doing everything does The Cobbler no favors. It’s a neither here nor there movie, never fully committing to its broad comedy, its crime story or its gentler tone, and eschewing any attempt to say something meaningful about its themes in favor of stabbing people in the neck and watching all the blood pour out.
It’s easy to see why Adam Sandler would want to work with a thoughtful, character-driven filmmaker like Thomas McCarthy. It’s a just a little baffling that McCarthy would suck half the marketability out of Sandler’s popular schtick and not fill in the gaps with something thoughtful or character-driven. It’s an amusing concept for a movie but there’s nothing for it to stand on. In other words, The Cobbler leaves you wondering, “Where’s the sole?”