For years, the widely-accepted rule of thumb has been that Adam Sandler's serious dramatic work has been surprisingly decent, while his broad comedies have grown increasingly lazy. Punch-Drunk Love, Funny People and Spanglish = Good Sandler. Jack & Jill, That's My Boy, Grown-Ups 1 &2 = Bad Sandler. Countless critics have noted that Sandler can be an interesting presence when he applies himself, even in overwrought dramas like Reign Over Me and Men, Woman & Children. Alas, Tom McCarthy's The Cobbler throws a wrench into the seemingly stable Good Sandler/Bad Sandler dynamic: it's a dramatic effort every bit as insufferable as any of Sandler's lazy, phoned-in comedies.
Sandler plays Max Simkin, a cobbler who runs a small shop in New York City. Sure, it's not a particularly modern profession, but it's been the Simkin family business for many years. One day, Max discovers that he's the owner of an old stitching machine with magical powers: any shoes repaired with the machine give Max the ability to step inside those shoes and take the form of the person they belong to. Of course, Max can't just wear any shoe – he's a size 10 ½, so he can only use shoes from people with a comparable foot size. Plus, for whatever reason, he's only able to become other men (though he does slip on a pair of high heels belonging to a man with a fondness for cross-dressing).
If this sounds like the premise for a whimsically silly high-concept comedy... well, it is, except McCarthy (who previously gave us such fine films as The Station Agent, The Visitor and Win-Win) opts to play it as a weirdly dour and mournful affair. The basic material isn't funny, but it's even less entertaining when it's being directed with all the joy and energy of a Lifetime cancer drama. I suppose McCarthy is aiming for some sort of melancholy magic realism, but whatever his motivation, the tone feels completely off. The score by John Debney and Nick Urata attempts to emphasize the fact that we're watching a playful Jewish folk tale of sorts, but the music's bouncy spirit isn't matched by the imagery it accompanies.
Sandler's performance is nearly a blank slate, as the actor mutters his way through his lines as if he's reading them off cue cards. Much of the movie is occupied by scenes of other actors impersonating Sandler, but there's nothing fun to impersonate – they all become dim-witted dullards, too. The film's most prominent plot strand involves Max impersonating a local gangster (Cliff “Method Man” Smith, 8 Mile), which leads to trouble with a powerful mob boss played by Ellen Barkin (Sea of Love). Method Man turns in the film's best (or at least most amusing) Sandler impression, but the body-swap story being told here is tiresome, predictable and a little racist (Method Man is essentially playing the embodiment of every negative black male stereotype, and he's the only black character of note in the film).
There's plenty of theoretical fun to be had with the film's premise, but just about everything in The Cobbler eventually manages to turn into something creepy and off-putting. At one point, Max borrows the body of a wealthy, handsome young DJ (Dan Stevens, Downton Abbey) and tries to sleep with the DJ's girlfriend – a rape-y maneuver thankfully undercut by the fact that Max is required to keep his shoes on to maintain the facade. Another scene features Max borrowing the shoes of his late father (Dustin Hoffman, Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium) so he can give his slightly senile mother (Lynn Cohen, Munich) a romantic evening. It's meant to be deeply affecting, but the scene can't shake its weird, incestuous vibe.
McCarthy has previously demonstrated a gift for drawing compelling, distinctive performances out of his actors, so I was surprised to discover that even most of the supporting players fail to make an impression in The Cobbler. Steve Buscemi (Boardwalk Empire) appears in a few scenes as Sandler's best friend, and does next to nothing with the part. Melonie Diaz (Fruitvale Station) doesn't have anywhere to go as Max's primary (and typically age-inappropriate) love interest, and Barkin's mob boss isn't even a little bit threatening (or interesting).
I won't spoil the film's ending for you, but permit me to say that it's one of the most spectacularly terrible conclusions I've seen a long while. It re-frames The Cobbler entirely, transforming the story from a hokey, misguided morality play into the dumbest superhero origin story ever made. The ending is meant to be inspirational, but instead it somehow manages to make two of the movie's most prominent characters even more loathsome. Magic realism is a category that has led many talented filmmakers astray, but The Cobbler is the sort of film that makes me want to take back every bad thing I've ever said about Lady in the Water and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. I can only guess that the person who made this movie was actually a mischievous cobbler wearing Tom McCarthy's shoes.
Rating: Zero stars (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 99 minutes
Release Year: 2015