Adam Sandler’s dramatic career hasn’t been as successful as he probably would have liked, because after earning rave reviews for his work in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Punch-Drunk Love,” he’s failed to replicate that potential in other roles, from “Spanglish” to “Funny People.” So when it was announced that the actor would be teaming up with writer/director Thomas McCarthy for his new film, “The Cobbler,” the stage seemed set for Sandler to prove that it wasn’t just a one-off. Unfortunately, the movie is pretty awful, and though he doesn’t quite reach the same heights that he did with “Punch-Drunk Love,” Sandler isn’t the problem. Instead, it’s the tone deaf script and, to a lesser degree, McCarthy’s muddled direction, which is even more surprising coming from the co-writer of “Up” and the filmmaker behind indie gems like “The Station Agent” and “Win Win.”
Max Simkin (Sandler) is a fourth-generation cobbler who’s taken over his family’s shoe repair store in Manhattan after his father (Dustin Hoffman) abandoned Max and his mother with no explanation. When his equipment breaks one night while fixing the soles on a pair of shoes, Max heads down to the basement to use an antique stitching machine that, unbeknownst to him, has magical powers that transform him into a doppelganger of the shoes’ owner when he puts them on. (As long as that person is a size 10 ½ like Max, of course). Excited by the numerous possibilities that it offers, Max takes advantage of his newfound ability by getting revenge on a particularly rude customer (Method Man), only to get mixed up in a criminal scheme to redevelop the Lower East Side by a corrupt real estate mogul (Ellen Barkin).
The most disappointing thing about “The Cobbler” is that it could have been so much better. Though it’s easy to imagine a version of this movie in which McCarthy conducts a thoughtful examination of the famous maxim, “To walk a mile in another man’s shoes,” going so far as to literally put Max in various people’s footwear, and by extension, their lives, the opportunity is wasted. Max’s use of the power isn’t just criminal (from dining and dashing, to robbery, to kidnapping), but also somewhat creepy, especially in one scene when he’s invited to have sex with a beautiful woman in the shower while impersonating her boyfriend (Dan Stevens), only to decline, not because it’s morally wrong, but because he would need to remove his boots (thereby reversing the effect) in order to do so. In fact, with the exception of a sweet gesture for his dementia-ridden mother (Lynn Cohen), Max rarely uses his powers for good, and yet he’s supposed to be the movie’s hero.
You’d think his father would have mentioned something about a magical family heirloom collecting dust in the basement considering the major repercussions it can have on someone, and McCarthy never thinks to explore any of the rules for using the machine. For instance, what happens when the original owner gets rid of his now-magical shoes? Will its powers have the same effect on the new owner, does the transfer of property effect its abilities, or are they exclusive to the cobbler who made it? And how does Max plan on staying in business with all of these shoes suddenly gone missing? This may seem petty, but when McCarthy can’t even be bothered to put much thought into the story beyond the initial concept, he’s practically begging for someone to poke holes in it.
And it’s not just the screwy logistics of the film’s plot device that are to blame, because “The Cobbler” is terrible on a narrative level as well. Max doesn’t have much of a character arc, or many redeeming qualities for that matter, refusing to help a local activist (Melonie Diaz) until his back is up against the wall, despite having recently discovered these incredible powers. But that’s exactly what the movie should have been about: Max helping people. Instead, it’s stuck somewhere between a broad comedy and a heartfelt drama, and much like its underdeveloped protagonist, it never feels very confident in being one or the other. In the end, it’s difficult to say what’s more troubling – that the film doesn’t do enough with its clever premise, or that it doesn’t seem to care – but one thing is certain: “The Cobbler” is McCarthy’s worst movie to date, and by a country mile.