You may not have noticed, but Adam Sandler has a new comedy in theaters. The Cobbler, which is also out on VOD, has gotten only a nominal theatrical release, tiny, in fact, for a star like Sandler. But that's not surprising, considering it has the distinction of being the worst reviewed movie at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival. The Cobber's dismal 7% on Rotten Tomatoes isn't actually an unusual thing for a Sandler film — he's proven himself critic-proof long before reviled hits like Jack and Jill and Grown Ups — but the drubbing is definitely a new experience for The Cobbler's director: indie darling Thomas McCarthy.
McCarthy's responsible for a trio of acclaimed, small-scale films (2003's The Station Agent, 2007's The Visitor, and 2011's Win Win) that are intimate and warm, and showcase terrific performances from stars Peter Dinklage, Richard Jenkins, and Paul Giamatti. The Cobbler was surely intended to do the same for Sandler, who's never found as good a non-bro-comedy role for himself as Punch-Drunk Love. But somehow, working together brought out the worst in both McCarthy and Sandler, as The Cobbler awkwardly combines the gritty and the whimsical like a grubbier version of Sandler's Click, complete with unearned sentimentality and vaguely offensive jokes.
Instead of a magical remote, The Cobbler features a magical sole stitcher that Sandler's character Max Simkin, a morose Lower East Side cobbler, discovers has the power to allow him to transform into the owners of the shoes he repairs (provided he can fit into their footwear). It's built around the saying that you can't know someone until you walk in their shoes, but, bewilderingly, the movie channels anything but empathy in a series of borderline racist, transphobic, and otherwise generally icky sequences. Max puts on the shoes of a handsome DJ (Dan Stevens) so he can almost have sex with the guy's girlfriend. He uses the body of his lone black customer, the local gangster Ludlow (Method Man), to mug someone. And let's not get into what happens when he dons a pair of pumps belonging to a cross-dresser.
Max eventually uses his powers to help thwart an evil developer, and in doing so, wins a date with a winsome activist (Melonie Diaz) and a happy ending. And this is where The Cobbler gets really weird (WARNING: Spoilers, obviously, follow): After Max gets threatened during a late attempt to set things right for someone, he's rescued and wakes up in the neighboring barber shop of his only friend, Jimmy (Steve Buscemi), another owner of a throwback business in a rapidly changing area.
Jimmy acknowledges that he's known all along what Max has been up to with the shoes and then, takes off his own shoes to reveal that he's actually Abraham (Dustin Hoffman), Max's father, who had to pretend to flee town after tangling with someone dangerous, but then figured out a way to secretly stay with his son. Abraham proceeds to unleash an unbelievable backstory about Max's "birthright," showing him a secret basement vault of shoes donated by customers ("they help us to help others") over generations. Max picks one pair up and notices they're labeled "Derek Jeter." "It's a privilege to walk in another man's shoes, Max, but it's also a responsibility," Abraham intones. "You are a guardian of soles, Max. You are The Cobbler. This is your thing."
Yes, all along, The Cobbler was actually a superhero origin story. There's something awesomely wild-eyed about its final gearshift — even for a movie that dabbles in magical realism, it feels crazy, the ultimately tonal dissonance in a story full of them. It may have seemed like we were watching a fable about how Max learns to accept and appreciate his inherited lot in life, in all its humbleness and lack of glamour, with all his mixed feelings about taking over for the parent who abandoned him and his mother; but no, with this last leap into comic book-style mythology, it enforces the more familiar, fabulous movie scenario that Max has always been special, with greater responsibilities and secrets than the average man.
When Abraham leads his son out of the back of the store, there's a driver standing alongside a gleaming car ("It beats the subway"), and as the camera pulls away, Abraham's starting to explain a world in which cobblers battle dry cleaners in a behind-the-scenes war of magical tradespeople. It's a jaw-dropping ending. It's remarkably ill-conceived. And yet, it's the only part of The Cobbler worth recommending, because the rest is, for all its clumsiness, also familiar — a failed exercise in playfulness, in combining realism with shabby wizardry to make someone a better person. The finale? There's nothing expected about it.
This superhero coda shows glimpses of what might have been The Cobbler's spark, the idea of larger-than-life heroes lurking in the most ordinary of places — like the cramped storefront of an old downtown business, from which Max secretly fights on behalf of a New York that's varied and vibrant, not just made up of wealthy condo-dwellers. All of the Cobbler's mythology that Abraham outlines is also grounded in Jewish LES history — even the pickles that Abraham-as-Jimmy is always offering Max turn out to be a restorative to counter the stress of body-hopping. There's a yearning and a specificity to it that echoes Stephen Chow's 2004 film Kung Fu Hustle, a far better and more expansive movie that also imagined mythical heroes hiding amid the ordinary residents of a tenement block.
Superhero mythology may be expanding and diversifying, but its most famous members still represent a narrow cultural background, whether they're corn-fed alien farm boys or brooding billionaires. The Cobbler is a ridiculous idea and figure, but in concept, he's also a wistful creation, the movie's final segment too earnest to be a punchline. Who else will come to the aid of the rest-controlled, the underrepresented, the old neighborhood?