Tom McCarthy transformed himself from an actor into an indie writer-director, and became a critics’ darling. Who knew what he REALLY wanted was to make Adam Sandler comedies?
Call it hubris, the belief that he could alter an actor’s career arc the way he did for Richard Jenkins (“The Visitor”) or Peter Dinklage and Patricia Clarkson (“The Station Agent”) or Bobby Cannavalle (“Win Win”) . Call it a desire or need for a bigger hit. Sandler is still box office silver, if no longer box office gold.
But something possessed the filmmaker to tie his fate to Sandler for “The Cobbler,” a little nothing of a body-switch fable that fits a lot more neatly on Sandler’s resume than it does McCarthy’s. Sandler? It’s easy to understand his attraction to this. He gets another shot at gaining acting credibility, is allowed to lose the silly voices and exhausted mugging for the camera. And he loses the dead-weight ensemble company of pals, only a few of whom were ever funny and all of whom depend on him for a paycheck or a free trip to Hawaii, South Africa or wherever.
Dan Patrick, are your ears burning?
A prologue tells us of a kindness a cobbler rendered to a vagrant in The Old Country, which led to his ownership of a magic shoe-stitching machine. Three generations later, that machine is almost forgotten in the present day shop of lonely, downtrodden Max Simkin (Sandler). He looks after his aged, forgetful mom, swaps depressed pleasantries with the barber (Steve Buscemi) who owns the shop next door and forlornly resists the attentions of the pretty neighborhood activist (Melonie Diaz of “Fruitvale Station”) who wants to preserve this corner of the Lower East Side where four generations of Simkins have fixed shoes.
The barber calls him “kid” and urges him not to “do anything you’re going to regret.”
“It’s a little late for that,” Max sighs.
Then a rude and menacing street hoodlum named Leon (Method Man) bounces in and demands new soles for his alligator shoes. Max’s sewing machine shorts out, and he’s stuck making the repair with the old pedal-operated one in the basement. He tries on the repaired shoes, and darned if that isn’t a guy who looks like Leon staring back at him in the mirror.
Max adjusts to the shock and figures out that every pair of size ten-and-a-halfs in the shop that he fixes with this magic machine transforms him into that person when he slips on their shoes. Then, it’s game on.
He can make time with the supermodel and assorted other hotties that his DJ neighbor (Dan Stevens of “Downton Abbey”) attracts, be as tough as Leon, turn into a transvestite customer or a dead one, pass incognito through any of the lives whose shoes he wears.
Sandler dials down the dopey and seems more engaged with the work here than he has in a while, even if his hairpiece isn’t. Supporting players Ellen Barkin, Fritz Weaver and Dustin Hoffman show up as those impacted by the magic shoes as the plot dives into a real estate shakedown.
Among the actors playing a version of Sandler, Stevens is the most into Entering Sandman, though Clifford “Method Man” Smith takes a stab at playing scary, then playing Sandler soft.
But an unfortunate turn toward violence pops the urban fairytale bubble, and an obnoxiously pandering third act — Sequels? Was that what McCarthy had in mind? — drag “The Cobbler” down to the level of “Just Go With It” or “Jack & Jill.” Whatever McCarthy hoped to do with this thin story and star casting, all he ended up with was another average Sandler movie — not as bad as some, no better than most.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some violence, language and brief partial nudity
Cast: Adam Sandler, Steve Buscemi, Melonie Diaz, Method Man, Dustin Hoffman, Dan Stevens, Ellen Barkin
Credits: Directed by Tom McCarthy, written by Tom McCarthy and Paul Sado. An RLJ/Image Entertainment release.
Running time: 1:38