It almost seems unfair to cover this film just a few days after basking in the legacy of Orson Welles’ Touch Of Evil. In a way, I suppose, it goes to show the sheer diversity of film as an art form. On the one hand you can have a palpably nightmarish crime thriller etched into the rock of cinema lore itself, blessed by its own warped glory and genuine brilliance, and on the other you have just another Adam Sandler movie. For UK residents, one which will largely be remembered as “the one that came out just before Pixels“.
Truth be told, word-of-mouth has kept me away from most of Sandler’s work. I first encountered him in Paul Thomas Anderson’s quirky and brilliant Punch-Drunk Love, something of a misnomer in his back catalogue by all accounts. Next I remember switching off a brief succession of films. The Wedding Singer. Little Nicky. Then years and years of simple ambivalence. Not avoidance, you understand, just… our paths never seemed to cross again. Until recently, that is, when a lazy Sunday scroll through Netflix brought me to Happy Gilmore. “It’s the good one,” people had told me (people who obviously haven’t seen Punch-Drunk Love). And yeah it is good. I guess.
The point is I’ve never really had to experience a truly dreadful Sandler film from beginning to end. Such is the vitriol directed at his supposedly gargantuan list of felonies against film that I’ve become, well, curious. How bad is a bad Sandler movie? This year’s one-two punch of The Cobbler and Pixels sounds, by all accounts (all) to be the perfect time to find out. Oh, the masochist in me.
If anything, The Cobbler has the potential to be the better film. It has the pedigree, mainly. Dappled with legitimate names like Steve Buscemi, Dustin Hoffman and the rising star of Dan Stevens (The Guest), it’s also helmed by Tom McCarthy. His 2003 film The Station Agent still leaves a lot of good graces in its wake, and introduced a lot of us to the awesome Peter Dinklage (also in Pixels, sort-of-coincidentally).
With its parpy, pompy, old-timey score, McCarthy’s film initially seems to be going for the same hipster charm of his debut. Following a prologue that supposedly aims to pitch the movie closest in spirit to the Coens’ A Serious Man (a serious miscalculation), we encounter present-day New York cobbler Max Simkin (Sandler), who has inherited the family business and seems rather despondent about it, much to the further despondence of young activist Carmen (Melanie Diaz), who is trying to stop the gentrification of the neighbourhood. The barber next door Jimmy (Buscemi) tells him to make more of his life. So does his doolally mother (Lynn Cohen). Anyway, the next day Simkin discovers that his father’s old stitching machine has magical powers. If he stitches someone’s shoes with it, and then puts those shoes on, he turns into them.
There then follows an extended montage in which Simkin walks a mile in the shoes of various citizens, allowing him – and the movie – to indulge in a host of racial stereotypes (The Cobbler is a comedy, by the way – at least that’s where it’ll be filed on Netflix when you scroll past it looking for Happy Gilmore). The film’s end game, one surmises at this time, will be a lesson about accepting the person that you are and learning how to improve that person, especially given the labored set-up. But… that’s not where this is headed. Where this is headed is, in its own way, kind of incredible. Jaw-dropping, really. But to get there you’ll have to wade through a whole load of crap.
Crap like the film’s mysterious pickle fixation. Crap like Simkin masquerading as Stevens’ dapper Brit Emiliano in an attempt to sleep with his hot girlfriend, except he can’t take off his shoes (sample dialogue, “why are you acting like such a spaz?”). Crap like a man whose surname is a first name being an actual punchline in this movie (comedy, remember?). Crap like the labored, chemistry-free burgeoning romance between Simkin and Carmen. Crap like Dustin Hoffman agreeing to be in this. And while we’re on the subject, Simkin’s decision to trick his mother into believing her husband – his father – has returned by disguising himself as the ol’ man is probably intended to be really sweet… instead it comes off as manipulative and, let’s face it, really, really weird. The next morning payoff underscores the film’s own shrewd contrivance. McCarthy’s attempt to whip-up some emotional resonance is conspicuous for it’s failure…
Seriously, you could be watching Touch Of Evil. It’s even back in cinemas.
But, y’know what. The Cobbler isn’t inexorably offensive. Okay, scratch that, it is kinda offensive, especially as it generalises minorities and cultures and women and men and, well, anyone and everyone really, but it still manages to be largely as ambivalent as Simkin himself. A shrug of a movie, bumbling along down increasingly silly corridors. Regrettable? Sure. But it’s hard to believe this is the worst Sandler has been involved in. And yeah, that parpy, pompy score is irritating as hell, but you can just let it all wash over you… right? Like a tide of crap. A torrent. Just hold your breath and, eventually, it’ll all be over, right?
Hardly a ringing endorsement.
But the thing is – the thing that truly buries this film, or elevates it depending on your perspective – is where it chooses to go with its loopy concept. McCarthy co-wrote this feature, which is certainly his worst offense (it’s a technically proficient film). One imagines him sat there, mulling over the concept, seriously considering that this was a story that required millions of dollars to share with the world. That. This. Was. Worth. That.
The third act insanity of The Cobbler is almost worth your investigation. Any and all enjoyment that there is to be derived from the film comes from watching this weak tale totally implode. It beggars belief. And even then? A sort of subdued astonishment sets in. The effect is fading. An hour, maybe two later, you’ll look back on the time you spent watching The Cobbler with a strange sensation of befuddlement.
“What was I doing?” you’ll ask yourself. And then you’ll think about the pickles. Oh god, the pickles.