The Cobbler is a frustratingly awful film, and not just because it describes itself as “magical realism” but only uses that type of storytelling to have its protagonist pretend to be other people so he can con women into having sex with him, steal cars, and generally be an idiot.
There are also so many cultural and racial stereotypes, so much poor dialogue, and such an awful final-act reveal that works its hardest to undo much of the character and plot development that came beforehand. How did this film gather a cast with the likes of Ellen Barkin and Dustin Hoffman? What happened?
The film from Thomas McCarthy, who directed and co-wrote the movie and is following up the fantastically cloying Million Dollar Arm, is about Max (Adam Sandler) the cobbler, running a shoe-repair store that has been in his family for generations. Practically everything about his life is monotonous: it’s the same kind of work every day and the same routine at home every day as he takes care of his elderly, increasingly senile mother. The Lower East Side neighborhood he works in, with its various trade shops, is changing around him as working-class people sell and upper-class people move in, but Max isn’t as angry about that as pretty young activist Carmen (Melonie Diaz). She sees rich people as changing the dynamics of the city, but Max sees the money as an opportunity—maybe he could sell the store and finally leave this place, with its memories of his father who abandoned the family years ago, behind.
Until one day when Max, in a shock, learns that the old shoe-repair machine hidden away in the basement of the store doesn’t just work well after all these years—it also transforms Max into the person who owned the shoes that he mended using the machine. When he slips on a pair of expensive loafers, he turns into the gangster Ludlow (Method Man, of “Red Tails”). When he slips on a pair of red high heels, he becomes the drag queen who owns them; another pair of shoes turns him into a chubby, quiet black teenager; another pair of shoes turns him into a Chinese man with an accent (which, of course, is joked about); another pair turns him into the owner of an expensive sportscar. Max can become anyone he wants—and since he so thoroughly doesn’t want to be himself, this seems like a fantastic fantasy come to life.
Except for where reality catches up to him, most spectacularly when he decides to rip off Ludlow while impersonating him—a decision that puts him into contact with Ludlow’s abused girlfriend, various henchmen, a man he was torturing, and his shady employer (Barkin), who hires Ludlow to assassinate someone. Caught in an intensifying world of crime for which he is thoroughly unprepared, Max feels the situation slipping out of control—and when tragedy strikes close to home, things only get worse.
The idea of a magical-realism film is an interesting one, not only because I’m a sucker for that subgenre of literature but also because it would be such a departure for Sandler at this point, and any change for his career would be a welcome one. And yet The Cobbler can never seem to get it together; it’s too mired in a cliched narrative—you’ll appreciate your own life once you experience other people’s, who knew!—and too reliant on cheap gags and racist humor. Why is it that every time Max commits a crime, he’s transformed into a black person? Why are his lies to get women into bed not treated as the despicable acts they are? Why does he get away with an impressively terrible series of crimes and remains our hero, whereas Ludlow is on a similar level of badness but is treated like the worst gangster alive? To call the movie’s racial dynamics “complicated” would be letting it off way easier than it deserves.
Aside from the double standards with how it treats its characters, the film also traffics in too-tidy explanations for its magic and its family dynamics, with a third-act reveal that reveals Max as the “guardian of soles” (and “souls,” too, get it?!), and therefore worthy and deserving of great things. Really? The Cobbler just makes him seem like a sad sack who can’t get his life together and who gets rewarded for stealing other people’s identities in order to get what he wants, but doesn’t want to work for. And yet in the universe of this movie, that makes you a superhero. Ugh.
Rating: 0.5 out of 5 Guttenbergs