When it was announced that Adam Sandler would make a movie with writer/director Tom McCarthy (‘The Station Agent’, ‘The Visitor’), I admit to feeling a little excited. After all, Sandler was fascinating in ‘Punch Drunk Love’, so perhaps he could flourish within the delicate reality of one of McCarthy’s heartbreaking character comedies. Sadly, that’s not at all the movie that ‘The Cobbler’ turned out to be.
For some reason, McCarthy wanted to make a gratingly sentimental and surreal Adam Sandler comedy, only without any of the anarchistic surrealism that occasionally makes those movies bearable. ‘The Cobbler’ takes everything that you hate about typical Sandler comedies and plays them sincerely in a giant train wreck that can only be viewed in slack-jawed awe.
The Sand-Man stars as a fourth generation cobbler toiling away at the family vocation in New York. He doesn’t have much of a life. He repairs shoes, chats it up with his barber neighbor (Steve Buscemi), and is a good son to his mother. He’s a sad-sack who knows nothing of life or love, just shoes. Then one day he finds an ancient stitcher hidden in the shop’s basement that he’s forced to use when his usual machine breaks down. The machine works wonders, but has a side effect. Whenever he puts on a pair of shoes fixed by the old stitcher, he transforms into the owner of the shoes. Say what?! That means the sheltered man-child can literally walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. Get it? Whoa, that’s deep…
From there, the movie could probably go in any number of slapstick comedy or touching human drama directions. But instead of milking the concept for laughs or tears, McCarthy dedicates the bulk of the movie to a real estate scam plot perpetrated by a dastardly Ellen Barkin and her associate Method Man (he of the Wu Tang Clan), the latter of whom Sandler impersonates with his magic shoes. I know. Awful, right? You have no idea. Eventually, it builds to a ridiculous ending hinged on a ludicrous star cameo and a final sequel-establishing image pulled from ‘Men in Black’. Mind-boggling stuff.
It’s hard to say exactly went wrong with ‘The Cobbler’, aside from absolutely everything. The gimmicky plot feels like it was conceived as a ‘Click’-style high concept Sandler romp. However, the way that McCarthy wrote and directed the movie makes it play like an earnest character study routed in realism. It constantly attempt to score laughs, but feels as if McCarthy felt uncomfortable doing anything outlandish with his magic shoe movie. So everyone plays things very sincerely and truthfully even though nothing about the movie is sincere or truthful.
Perhaps the hope was that the movie would feel like a fable or that Adam Sandler’s mere presence would evoke laughs without effort. It’s hard to say. There isn’t a moment in ‘The Cobbler’ that doesn’t feel confused and uneasy. You have to wonder why anyone even bothered making the movie since the final product doesn’t show much effort or commitment. Sandler barely seems to be present. He chose one hangdog expression to define the character and sticks with it in every scene, hoping the audience will project all of the characters’ thoughts and emotions onto his famous face for him. That dazed performance style carries over throughout the cast. Maybe it was a directing choice by McCarthy, hoping to create some new form of deadpan fairy tale magic. If so, it didn’t work. Nothing does. The only actor who even seems awake is Barkin, but her bling-covered gangstress is so ridiculous in conception that all of her efforts go to waste.
And yet, something about ‘The Cobbler’ is oddly compelling. This isn’t just a movie that went wrong, it’s a total train wreck that flies off the rails, crashes into a neighboring town, causes a massive fire, and explodes with such force that it derails a few other trains further down the track. It’s an absolutely insane movie that you kind of have to see to believe. It’s so thoroughly misconceived that no description or laundry list of failures can even hope to capture the inane insanity.
Sandler made many bad movies before ‘The Cobbler’, but this is the first one to go so outrageously wrong that it has a chance of earning an ironic cult following. It’s the type of movie that you watch with likeminded friends over a case of beer while yelling at the screen and marveling at how filmmakers somehow managed to top every bad idea with an even worse one.
‘The Cobbler’ will bomb theatrically and will never be appreciated for whatever the hell it was the filmmakers hoped to accomplish. But it just might find an audience that adores it for all the wrong reasons. That’s not much, but it’s something. At least Sandler, McCarthy and compnay can take comfort in knowing that they made something completely insane and memorable. It’s certainly an accomplishment, just not the one that they were aiming for.