Film Torments: The Cobbler (2014)

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THIS WEEK on Film Torments, Dan takes a look at yet another Adam Sandler bomb.

You wouldn’t be blamed for assuming that we like to pick on Adam Sandler at SCM, but the reality of it is that he’s a very gifted performer in the right pair of hands. Though his comedies are among the most execrable wastes of time since the dawn of the screened image, and they’ve rightly been savaged on this website, but Sandler’s turns away from the Happy Madison back-slap party have often harnessed the sad, dead-eyed melancholy behind the manchild gimmickry. His performance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love shattered the illusion that he was a one-trick pony, and ever since then I’ve been clamouring to see him branch out more. (I haven’t seen Reign Over Me or Funny People, so I can’t be that desperate.)

The Cobbler is Sandler branching out, certainly; the prospect of an affecting human drama helmed by indie auteur darling Tom McCarthy must have been an exciting one, light-years away from the likes of Jack and Jill. McCarthy, for his part, went on to score big at the Oscars with Spotlight, nabbing Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay in the process. With this kind of pedigree behind the camera, Sandler would seem the obvious scapegoat to blame if The Cobbler turned out to be a unique milestone in what-the-fuck cinema.

The Cobbler is not Adam Sandler’s fault.

Enter the 36th stereotype.

Enter the 36th stereotype.

The Cobbler is, in fact, one of the weirdest, most patently ill-conceived motion pictures that I have ever seen. It’s a comedy without laughs, a human drama without drama or humanity, a film that mercilessly grinds one of the world’s most powerful metaphors beneath the clumsy soles of toe-capped steel and dares you to indulge its saccharine horseshit. The mind boggles at just how woefully misjudged this entire venture is, trading on crushing mediocrity, clammy sentiment and lifeless action.

The film opens in 1903 on a group of Jewish men discussing how best to deal with a local slum-lord running them out of business. They hand a pair of his shoes to a cobbler, who tells his son what the jig is regarding a “special” stitching machine. This chronological stop-off is not brought up again until the ending, and we’ll get to that. We then hard-cut to their descendant Max Simkin (Sandler), a sad and lonely cobbler who lives with his mother, schlubbing and brooding his way through an unfulfilling job as Steve Buscemi’s next door neighbour. Finding the magical stitching machine, Max discovers he can “become” a person by wearing both of their shoes, providing he uses the machine in conjunction with them.

Fitting that a film about a man with no identity should have no identity of its own. We learn nothing of Max Simkin – what he feels, what he thinks, what he wants to do – because Sandler’s expression never lifts from a facsimile of affected sadness. He begins the film looked exhausted and he ends it looking exhausted, displaying none of the self-effacing humour necessary to elevate this character from boring zero to flawed but likeable shuckster. These qualities were in abundance during Punch-Drunk Love, and while it’s safe to think that maybe, just maybe, Sander didn’t bring his A-game, I’m more willing to think it a critical failure of both writing and direction.

Looking sad is hard work.

Looking sad and stubbly is hard work, okay?

As Max is a cipher for the baseless personalities of others, the film dons the visage of genres and styles that are not only wildly antithetical to each other, they’re also constantly at odds with a restless tone that wildly swings from meditations on Jewish heritage to manslaughter hi-jinks to familial reconciliation. Is this a crime thriller, a Freaky Friday-esque body-swap (or body theft) caper, or an emotional story of a man finding himself – literally and metaphorically – in the shoes of others? With such bizarre lurches in mood it’s no wonder that Sandler is unable to anchor his performance, coupled with the fact he’s onscreen as Max for approximately 30% of the character’s screen-time total.

Part of the film’s indelible charmlessness is its incessant harping on the line between metaphor and reality. “To know a man, you must walk a mile in his shoes,” is an adage well-honoured by classic works like To Kill a MockingbirdThe Cobbler chooses to take it in painful, brow-beatingly obvious fashion. Max inhabits the footwear of a startling array of garish stereotypes – low-life gangsta (Wu-Tang Clan alum Method Man), transvestite (Yul Vasquez), Chinese Guy (Stephen Lin and yes, that’s the actual credit: Chinese Guy) – initially to experience their lives for a day, leading to such immaculate observations as, “I have an acc-cent!” and “I’m black!”

This crushingly dull half hour or so steadily devolves into 50 minutes of savage tedium as Max and his disguises embroil themselves in a gangland deal, accidentally killing Method Man and saving the neighbourhood from criminal sports-mom Elaine Greenawalt (Ellen Barkin) in the process. The lurch from quirky 80s trope to low-rent dark comedy the Coen Brothers couldn’t turn into gold is an ill-advised and astonishingly ungainly one, but it highlights how clattering and misguided every single plot element is in its wake.

Not mentioned in the article: A thankless activist role for Melonie Diaz.

Not mentioned in the article: A thankless activist role for Melonie Diaz.

One particular highlight is when Max’s mother (Lynn Cohen) longs for one more night with her husband, Max’s absent father, Abraham (Dustin Hoffman). Max chooses to take this literally – as the movie makes him do with everything else – and dons his father’s shoes to spend that hallowed evening with the oblivious parent. The sentiment is immediate and cloying, but when you stop to think about it for more than a moment, the semi-incestuous creepiness of this sequence is overwhelming, especially when the scene cuts from their dinner date to Sarah, in bed, lovingly caressing Max-as-Abraham’s face. And then, hilariously, she drops dead the next day, presumably of happiness, whiplashing the tone off a seventh cliff into grief-stricken ennui.

What does Max think about all this? No one knows, because Sandler continues to look just as sad and exhausted as he’s been looking for the last hour of runtime. The one certifiable facet of our protagonist is his chilling lack of a moral compass; wearing the shoes of the handsome Emiliano (Dan Stevens, collecting a cheque), he makes to share a steamy coital embrace in the shower with the man’s model girlfriend (Kim Cloutier). It is not his ethics that halts his progress, however; it is only upon the realisation that taking off his shoes would reveal the disguise that Max backs off. We are, clearly, meant to sympathise with Max’s plight throughout the film, and yet this terrifying, horror-fodder scene achieves exactly the opposite.

The Cobbler did manage to get a reaction out of me that wasn’t hissing boredom, in fairness. Rarely have I gone from listlessness to speechlessness in so short a space of time; I hesitate to spoil this because it benefits greatly from going in blind (should you actually want to watch The Cobbler, presumably from morbid curiosity), but I have to drive the demon out. In the final ten minutes, Max is rescued from a car crash by Jimmy (Buscemi), his barber neighbour and closest friend. Jimmy hands Max a jar of pickles, saying, “They help with the transition from body to body.” No, seriously. Pickles.

Not pictured: Magical, mind-sustaining transubstantiation pickles.

Not pictured: Magical, mind-sustaining transubstantiation pickles.

He then takes off his shoes to reveal – SPOILERS! – Abraham, his father. The film’s bullshit reached critical mass and destroyed my capacity for speech. I spent the next five minutes so dumbfounded I was unable to vocalise the millions of questions rampaging through my skull. None of them are relevant because none of them are answered; Max blithely accepts this as quickly as one might accept finding a quid on the floor, and the film ends where it should have begun, with Abraham telling Max they are – no joke, I’m fucking serious – “The guardians of soles.” They then drive out of Abraham’s underground bunker full of stolen footwear and into the New York night.

As stunningly bone-headed as this twist is, it goes far in “redeeming” an otherwise mind-numbing catastrophe that no one would be able to remember a goddamn thing about. The twist is so insane, so riddled with problems and so clearly out-of-kilter with the rest of the film that it transcends comprehension. It almost nullifies the preceding 90 minutes of horrid elevator muzak, scattershot tone and barely competent direction through the power of unadulterated what-the-fuck.

But the twist is all The Cobbler has and, with any luck, is all it will be remembered for. It will certainly be the black mark on McCarthy’s career, who managed to bounce right back with Spotlight only a few months later. Maybe Dennis Dugan wore his shoes or something. Hopefully, co-writer Paul Sado will go on to do better – he’s probably the scapegoat we need here – but, in any case, it’s a deeply embarrassing dud for all involved. The saddest part is that, these days, it’s business as usual for Adam Sandler.

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