Adam Sandler has taken some almighty drubbings from critics (including this one) for his series of increasingly moribund comedies over the past few years, so it deserves to be stated upfront: Of the many things that go horribly wrong with his latest, “The Cobbler,” none are even remotely his fault. In fact, credit him for taking on such an unusual project — a largely serious tale about a shoe repairman who can magically take on the appearance of his customers by donning their footwear — helmed by a director, Tom McCarthy, whose track record was previously unblemished. But the result is a slow-motion zeppelin crash that starts as a dull-edged fable, and then spirals further and further out of control without ever growing more exciting or interesting. Picked up by Image Entertainment, the film will surely test the limits of Sandler’s drawing power, and word of mouth might not be kind.
Though “The Cobbler’s” premise might make it seem an unusual choice for McCarthy, one can almost imagine it as a magical-realist twist on his lovely 2007 film, “The Visitor”: Both feature lonely, middle-aged New Yorkers who learn to step outside their comfort zones and empathize with those unlike themselves through strange plot contrivances. The new film is certainly visually and formally similar to McCarthy’s past efforts, but it bears little of their warm, wise humanism; in fact, it can best be described as a poor cousin to Sandler’s 2006 comedy, “Click,” with the jokes and the stabs at moral inquiry removed.
After a brief, enigmatic Yiddish-language prelude set in 1904, McCarthy introduces us to Max Simkin (Sandler), a sad-sack fourth-generation cobbler working out of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Bashful, bleary-eyed and blue, Max stitches soles while neighborhood characters like the nosy next-door barber (Steve Buscemi) and an anti-development activist (Melonie Diaz) breeze through his life, every night returning home to his frail mother (Lynn Cohen) in Sheepshead Bay.
One night, while repairing a pair of alligator loafers for vicious local gangster Ludlow (Method Man), Max’s stitching machine breaks, and he’s forced to dust off the pedal-powered vintage contraption in the basement. Idly slipping on the shoes afterward, he finds himself transformed into their owner, only to return to his regular appearance once he’s taken them off. As he discovers through frenzied nighttime experimentation, other shoes touched by the same machine yield the same result, though for some reason the trick only works with size 10 1/2 shoes, effectively preventing Sandler from becoming a woman. (Clearly, someone on staff had seen “Jack and Jill.”)
What follows is a weirdly joyless sequence wherein Max — always wearing his signature knit scarf — gets up to some very uninspired, racially and sexually dicey mischief with his newfound powers. He takes the form of a Chinese man in order to … walk through Chinatown. He stages a dine-and-dash at a fancy restaurant. He puts on Ludlow’s loafers in order to intimidate a white gentrifier into giving up his sports car. He sneaks into the apartment of the neighborhood bombshell in the guise of her boyfriend, peeps on her in the shower, and seems willing to go even further if not for the fact that he can’t take his shoes off. (Much like “Revenge of the Nerds,” the film doesn’t even seem to realize how close it comes to staging a lighthearted rape scene.) The less said about Max’s experiences as a corpse, the better.
And in what was likely intended to be an emotional high point, he dons the shoes of his father (Dustin Hoffman), who abandoned the family years ago, and takes his elderly mother out on a date. The obvious logistical and Oedipal complications of this scenario — wouldn’t she want an explanation for his decades-long absence? Would she want to punch him? Or take him to bed? — do not seem to have occurred to the filmmakers, which means one can add “Back to the Future” to “Click” on the list of films that ask much tougher, more philosophically probing questions about their fantastical conceits than “The Cobbler” does.
As laughless and lifeless as all this is — and it’s hard to overstate just how few jokes the film even attempts — one is still willing to wait and see where McCarthy is taking it, with the strange sense of unreality and wall-to-wall klezmer-inspired score giving it the feel of some long-lost Yiddish fairy tale. (Even after the subtitled prologue, the film still throws out more bubelehs and boychiks than you can shake a shepleffel at.) But as a plot involving a predatory developer (Ellen Barkin) and her roving gangs of hyperviolent thugs starts to take hold around the hour mark, the film goes off the deep end completely with a series of jarring turns. The final twist simply has to be seen to be believed, and will probably alienate the few viewers who have yet to turn against it.
Sandler is perfectly fine in the lead role, never once drawing from his bag of go-to tics and bellows; though it hardly merits comparison with his turn in “Punch Drunk Love” (or “Happy Gilmore” and “The Wedding Singer,” for that matter), the performance certainly deserves a better film than this. Method Man is called upon to do the movie’s most transformative acting as the body Max channels most often, though the physical-comedy potential of Sandler stepping inside the astral plane of a Wu-Tang Clan member goes sadly untapped. Barkin is nicely villainous, but by the time she shows up, the film has already been damaged beyond repair.