Overview: A Jewish cobbler discovers a world of unknown fantasy and magic under his store in New York City when he discovers an outdated stitching machine that allows him to literally step into the shoes of another person and take on their physical appearance. 2014; Distributed by Image Entertainment; Rated PG-13; 99 minutes.
Fabled Heritage: Tom McCarthy’s first film since 2011’s brutal family drama Win Win is an astounding disappointment from a screenwriter whose previous features have been marvelously well-conceived and independently funded cinematic experiences. In The Cobbler, a Jewish heritage film is intimated in a prologue that proves incongruous with the film that follows. The film’s starring turn from Adam Sandler turns any subtlety in McCarthy’s authorial voice into a Happy Madison Production, replete with a schmaltzy turn from Oscar winner Dustin Hoffman and the return of Sandler mainstay Steve Buscemi, whose individual attempts at uplifting the drudgery of Sandler’s catastrophically bad dramatic turn prove inevitably fruitless. At times there appears to be something going for Sandler’s Max Simkin; his inheritance harking back to the early twentieth century immigration of his ancestors is oddly affecting. Unfortunately, this fabled heritage is soon buried under the lackluster tone of the film’s narrative and Sandler’s tired comic antics, making last year’s Blended seem like a fond memory in comparison.
Identity Crisis: Much of McCarthy’s The Cobbler is thematically concerned with a crisis of identity, its protagonist Max Simkin wistfully questioning his vocation, wondering if the grass is in fact greener on the other side. When Sandler begins trying on other character’s shoes, however, the tone of McCarthy’s film varies wildly, at times melodramatically treacly (albeit compelling and emotionally satisfying) while simultaneously bearing the outward characteristics of your typical Sandler farce, enraging in its simplicity and lazy stereotypes. It almost feels as though McCarthy let Sandler and Co. take over halfway through the film, only to come back in at the very end, at which point the film’s fantasy culminates in a dénouement that is bewilderingly insipid, unbelievable despite the film’s obvious embrace of surreal fantasy.
Self-Confusion: Coming from the guy who wrote and directed 2003’s tender dramedy The Station Agent, The Cobbler is a huge step backward for New Jersey native Tom McCarthy; for Adam Sandler, it’s an expected career misstep. It’s impossible to come away from McCarthy’s fourth feature film and not feel a little unsure of what you have just watched, the script’s thematic interrogations of self-doubt ironically prescriptive of the film’s comparative self-confusion. McCarthy appears to want to make something of Adam Sandler a la Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, all of which is negated by an inherent incompatibility with Sandler on a creative level. As a result, The Cobbler comes with a lot of good concepts in tow, and bearing the most honest of intentions, but is never able to marry either aspect to the other. McCarthy’s thematic pretentions are in conflict with Sandler’s more playful authenticity.
Overall: Tom McCarthy’s The Cobbler is uneven throughout, making it a true low point for its critically lauded director. The film’s grotesque attempts at humor are found lacking, making the entire production akin to a neutered Adam Sandler vehicle, as opposed to the magical and surreal comedy that attempts to climb atop the moral high ground amid the fluff of a Happy Madison feature.