This is a repost of our review from the 2014 Toronto Film Festival [TIFF 2014].
Like an orbiting celestial body, a rare Adam Sandler role appears every half-decade or so that threatens to break the actor out of his lucrative fiefdom of low-brow comedy. Punch-Drunk Love looked like a potential turning point in 2002, but a Spanglish or two aside, he avoided further dramatic work until 2010’s Funny People, which earned Sandler wide praise for how capably he lampooned his own career. He then followed that up with Jack & Jill, That’s My Boy, and a pair of Grown Ups. Clearly, if Sandler were interested in a McConaughey-esque career turnaround, he would have gone for it by now.
The underwhelming returns on his latest vacation disguised as a comedy, Blended, along with a pair of upcoming dramatic roles once more see the established Sandler narrative being challenged. The Cobbler is the first of two efforts this year that have Sandler leaving behind the SNL lackeys and fart jokes for something a little meatier. Theoretically.
With Thomas McCarthy behind the camera and co-writing, one could be forgiven for expecting The Cobbler to be a small, well-observed character piece akin to what he delivered in The Station Agent and Win Win. Such an expectation would be wrong, though: The Cobbler is slow to reveal its true nature, and earns an earnest moment of pathos now and then, but is pure, weapons-grade silliness. Nothing can stop the sunny disposition and incessant klezmer music of The Cobbler, which seems intentional. Without them, it’s easier to notice how frequently the film edges towards distastefulness.
Sandler stars as Max Simkin, a single, hapless Brooklynite that owns and operates a Lower East Side shoe repair store that’s been in his family for generations. If his diet of pickles and deli pastrami weren’t enough of a hint, the dementia-ridden mother he’s tended to since his father walked out is proof of his status as a nice Jewish boy with not much going on in his life. Little does he know, he’s inherited a special stitching machine from his father, one that can make him look like any of the customers whose shoes have been fixed by the magic device. So long as they share his size ten and a half feet, Max can be anyone he pleases, be they man, woman, or child. The possibilities for hijinks, tomfoolery, and self-discovery seem endless.
That The Cobbler doesn’t seem to understand the point of its central metaphor – one so screamingly obvious, it’s literally written in neon lights – is problem number one. You’d think, as a man who fixes soles, Max would use this gift to mend the lives of those around him. You’d also think that a film about walking in other people’s shoes would actually show an interest in said people. Yet, save for one pair of kicks related to his sweet mama, The Cobbler never bothers to think of Max’s new faces as human beings. They’re Halloween masks for a shy loner to cut loose in, free of consequence. Sometimes this means dine ‘n dashing on a fancy meal. Other times, it means going to Chinatown for the first time, because not looking Chinese apparently represented a barrier to entry for Max.
Problem number two is the lack of direction The Cobbler sets for itself, and what a complete non-character Max is. There’s nothing driving him as a protagonist, as even his feelings of abandonment are more a backburner issue. Sandler only really seems engaged when it’s time for shtick, and while his surprise at the otherworldly mess he’s gotten into is funny initially, it grows tiring once The Cobbler bumbles its way into something that could loosely be defined as a plot.
There’s an evil land developer played by Ellen Barkin that’s looking to gentrify the Lower East Side, and Method Man is present to play a tough guy menacing the neighborhood. It’s a little hard to focus on all that in the face of some icky material The Cobbler plays for laughs. In one scene, the only thing stopping Max from sleeping with his hot neighbour while masquerading as her boyfriend is that doing so would mean taking the man’s shoes off, at which point she would realize she’s having sex under false pretences. When Max commits manslaughter in self-defense, a spurt of blood from the jugular is a punchline, and the cheery klezmer doesn’t miss so much as a beat. As is often the case for films in the Sandler-verse, consequences never get in the way of an easy gag, because they pretty much don’t exist.
By the nonsensical climax, you think you’ve seen all the wasted potential and tone mangling The Cobbler has to offer. Not so, and thank goodness! The denouement of The Cobbler almost warrants recommending the whole thing, as the final ten minutes are borderline absurdist, taking all the undercurrents of crazy that have been percolating throughout, and leaning into them with the commitment and power of a full-body tackle. You want to thank all involved for having the decency to properly cook this turkey all the way through. A true waste of time is a bad movie that’s entirely forgettable, so at least The Cobbler has the guts to be memorably awful at times. This is a disappointment coming from McCarthy, but for Sandler, it’s business as usual. If the clown shoe fits, seems there’s no point in changing.
The last ten minutes of The Cobbler are a special kind of awful. The rest is a mere disappointment coming from McCarthy, but business as usual for Sandler.