The Cobbler (2015) - Can't Stop the Movies
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The Cobbler (2015)

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Max is tired of living his father's life.  He took over a struggling downtown shoe repair store after his father vanished without saying a word to he or his mother.  But when Max's equipment breaks down he is forced to use a rickety old stitching machine his father kept in storage.  Max discovers he can assume the form of whoever's shoes he repairs with the machine, and tries to figure out what he can do for his neighborhood with this new talent.  Thomas McCarthy cowrote and directs The Cobbler, starring Adam Sandler.

I can be whoever I wantI don't watch Adam Sandler movies, but I happily consume movies that feature Adam Sandler in the hopes he'll one day reach the heights he did in Punch-Drunk Love.  In one nervy, agonizingly tense performance, Sandler proved he could hang with the best performers of any generation in the hands of a capable director.  It's quite possibly my favorite performance ever, and I approached The Cobbler hoping that Thomas McCarthy would be able to harness some of the same greatness Sandler showed himself capable of.

In a strange twist of alchemy I would not have predicted from someone of McCarthy's strength in writing and directing, The Cobbler turns out to contain the worst aspects of Adam Sandler films and middlebrow indie dramas.  This is remarkable, if sad, as McCarthy turned out career-high performances from Peter Dinklage, Richard Jenkins, and Paul Giamatti in the three movies he's written and directed.  But The Cobbler features all the magical nonsense of Sandler's worst films, combined with muddled social commentary from McCarthy.  The Cobbler is positioned as a modern-day fairy tale and ends as dull slapstick, clumsily tripping over several different tones in the process.

Dustin Hoffman brings such gravitas to his brief moments in The Cobbler that I'd love to see him in another McCarthy film.

Dustin Hoffman brings such gravitas to his brief moments in The Cobbler that I'd love to see him in another McCarthy film.

The Cobbler most reminds me of those adaptations of old television shows which were all the rage in the '90s.  Almost all of them, from The Flintstones to The Addams Family to The Beverly Hillbillies, featured a shadowy real estate deal gone sour.  This was both a sign of the times as America was still growing its economic housing and land bubble, as well as a failure to creatively transfer the odd worlds of these shows into a feature-length film.  While Sandler never starred in a sitcom such as those adapted in the '90s, he did reach the peak of his success on definitive '90s comedies such as Happy Gilmore and Billy Madison.  I was always a Little Nicky guy myself, and was hoping The Cobbler would capture some of that weird magic, but instead it features a depressed Sandler who vaguely recalls his crazy days on the golf course and has set about unhappily repairing shoes for ungrateful customers in a dying part of town.

Now that's the territory which McCarthy works well in, as all of his films deal with the economic realities of their characters in some way.  But his earlier films mined those realities for pathos and jokes which worked because they were rooted in painful realities of day-to-day existence (the image of Giamatti wrestling with his violent plumbing in Win Win is a highlight here).  Here it's a clothesline to hang increasingly wide reaching plot angles on.  Not only is the store Max (Sandler) owns a target of a major land grab, he also becomes the victim of a local gang member (Method Man), who may also be connected to shady deals Max's father (Dustin Hoffman) was involved with the same heiress who wants the land now (Ellen Barkin).  Underpinning all this is a budding romance between Max and the plucky Carmen (Melonie Diaz) and Max's newfound ability to assume the form of anyone when he repairs their shoes with a special stitching machine.

With all those elements in play you'd think The Cobbler would be pushing for a total farce.  If Sandler tapped into some of the energy which made his '90s films basic cable classics and McCarthy punched up some of the elements of magical realism then it might have worked.  Instead The Cobbler is remarkably subdued, and even when Max realizes the power he now possesses the excitement is fleeting and quickly punches down to it being another humdrum aspect of his existence.  This could have been geared toward a larger point, such as saying that even with otherworldly tools economic classes are rigidly defined now and forever, but with some late-film developments which incorporate aspects of superhero films we see that this is not the case.

My proposed rule for any Method Man appearance - if he's credited as Cliff Smith, hold onto hope that the film may be good, if he appears as Method Man, tread carefully.

My proposed rule for any Method Man appearance - if he's credited as Cliff Smith, hold onto hope that the film may be good, if he appears as Method Man, tread carefully.

So is The Cobbler saying the lower classes may really be the richest of all thanks to their roots in their respective communities?  Uncertain, especially with the way it courts trouble by associating Max's struggles with the common antisemitic belief of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy.  The latter plot twist is introduced with only minutes to spare and if anyone involved in the writing of The Cobbler, which means McCarthy is partly to blame, stopped to think about what they were writing they might have refocused the film on why its fantastical elements had to be kept a secret within the family.  Instead we end up with a movie which plays to some terrible stereotypes of African Americans and transvestites, clumsily touches on elements of class and power without really incorporating them fully into the plot, and features mistaken identity humor which carries troublesome implications when you sit and think about it further.

I still hold out hope that Sandler has one more great performance in him before he retires.  He's great in Men, Women, and Children even if the rest of that film is a disaster, and his more typical comedies have their defenders.  But he was paired with McCarthy, one of the best chroniclers of working class troubles making films today, and if I set my standards to typical Sandler levels The Cobbler would still have been a disappointment.  There are better ways to entertain children much like there are better stories to tell for economic troubles.  To the former I recommend Hotel Transylvania, to the latter McCarthy's own Win Win, and skip The Cobbler because it won't please either way.

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Tail - The CobblerThe Cobbler (2015)

Directed by Thomas McCarthy.
Screenplay written by Thomas McCarthy and Paul Sado.
Starring Adam Sandler, Melonie Diaz, Dustin Hoffman, Steve Buscemi, and Method Man.

Posted by Andrew

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