The Cobbler is one of those modern-day fairy tales that tries so hard to be everything to everyone that it loses sight of what it actually is. The film is a constant contradiction of itself. At times it is a screwball comedy with heart and at other times a misguided, not to mention slightly offensive, cultural satire. It wants to be both a whimsical tale and a superhero origin story. It has both the familiar trappings of an Adam Sandler comedy and the feel of an artist making an honest attempt at trying something different.
The problem with the latter being that the artist, in this case director Tom McCarthy, ultimately gets lost in the process. After making such rich and engaging character pieces like The Station Agent and The Visitor, Tom McCarthy has earned the right to extend his reach a bit. Truth be told, he is a director who we are rooting for each time he steps up to the plate. Which makes The Cobbler even more disappointing. The film feels like anyone could have been behind the camera. McCarthy has concocted a film were his unique voice is nowhere to be found.
As The Cobbler is primarily an Adam Sandler vehicle, he will most likely get the brunt of the critical blame which is a shame. Sandler is actually quite good in the film. He and the rest of the all-star cast, which includes Steve Buscemi, Dustin Hoffman and Ellen Barkin, do the best they can with the material they are given, unfortunately they are not given much.
The story follows lonely shoe repairman Max Simkin (Adam Sandler) who stumbles upon an old family heirloom that has magical powers. Discovering that he can literally “walk in another person’s shoes”, Max is transformed into any of the customers whose shoes he both fixes and tries on. Indulging in this newfound ability to be whoever he wants, and subsequently get away with whatever he wants, Max gets more than he bargains for when assumes the identity of streetwise gangster Ludlow (Clifford “Method Man” Smith).
The interesting thing about The Cobbler is that McCarthy actually has a rather innovated premise to work with. There have been several films, take M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable for example, which effectively used superhero tropes in an unconventional way. McCarthy’s film has the potential to be a solid comedy but lacks the stern voice needed to reign in various concepts flying around aimlessly. The old “throw it at the wall and see if it sticks” approach gets infuriating by time the film reaches the end of its second act.
Despite being comprised of a splattering of ideas colliding on a canvass, the saddest thing about The Cobbler is that it will probably do well at the box office. The loyal legion of Adam Sandler fans will most likely eat up the bad “sole” puns and the nonsensical plot. Hopefully The Cobbler is nothing more than McCarthy’s momentary kryptonite. A brief spell of directorial weakness that, with his next feature, he will heroically recover from wearing his own identifiable shoes.