There are movies that are bad that just miss the mark; there are movies that are bad because they are boring; there are movies that are bad because they’re confusing; there are movies that are bad because they’re offensive; and there is “The Cobbler,” a film that gets every single choice it makes wrong in every way. I have never seen a movie so bafflingly, obscenely terrible.
The basic plot of “The Cobbler” involves a man (Adam Sandler), the titular Cobbler, who discovers that, through a magical Jewish shoe-stitcher (this is not a culturally sensitive film), he can put on customer’s shoes and take on their physical appearance. He explores this power, eventually using it to derail an organized crime scheme to try and gentrify his old, terrible-looking neighborhood in New York City. Absent from that synopsis: racism, transphobia, homophobia, out-of-wack gender politics, general confusion.
Star Adam Sandler has proven on multiple occasions that he can do more than schlock out lazy, bad comedies on an annual basis. He was a funny SNL cast member, a true art-house star in “Punch Drunk Love,” and he’s turned in the occasional “Spanglish” or “Happy Gilmore,” films that deserve to exist. However, even as his oeuvre fills with more and more garbage films and performances, this stands as his absolute worst performance. It’s lazy, without any discernible root or understanding. He’s the poster child for an Ambien commercial that no one watched. We never understand the character from a psychological standpoint, from a motivational standpoint, or really from any standpoint. Sandler mumbles and hunches his way through a character with no qualities resembling that of a human, and the audience watches, confused and sad.
That isn’t to say the character, or lack thereof, is inoffensive. He lazily uses these powers in a few key scenarios. He becomes a large, intimidating black man (The Wu Tang Clan’s Method Man, far better than this crap) so that he can steal a rich man’s shoes in broad daylight, becomes a transgender woman so that everyone can make fun of the fact that he’s now a transgender woman, and wears the skin of a handsome Englishman (Dan Stevens, who died in “Downtown Abbey” for this) and almost has sex with the Englishman’s wife, changing his mind not because doing so would be rape, but because he can’t do so without taking his shoes off, and if he did that, he’d be Adam Sandler again. What a shame! “The Cobbler” features narrative episodes so offensive they’d give Mel Gibson doubts.
But that’s not all. There’s a moment in the film where Adam Sandler pretends to be the father who abandoned him and his mother as a boy (Dustin Hoffman. Seriously. Dustin Freaking Hoffman) so that he can give his sick mom one last day of happiness, and it is so gross. It’s abuse, it raises an ocean of questions and discomfort, and it remains effectively unresolved, treated as a nice thing a nice man does for his mother, and not one of the grossest things you’ve ever seen.
The man at the helm of this, Thomas McCarthy, has spent most of his career making genuinely good films. All three of his prior efforts—“The Station Agent,” “The Visitor,” and “Win Win,”—are movies that feature genuine humor and warmth, solid filmmaking, and good performances. Which means either McCarthy lost his mind during the making of “The Cobbler,” or that the McCarthy who made this movie is an impostor impersonating a talented filmmaker (one can only assume by wearing his shoes). In that case, we have to find the real one and be rid of this filth.
McCarthy shoots this film like a drama, all canted angles, shots meant to explore character psychology and to give the setting three dimensions. Only this is an absurdist comedy. The serious, cinematic camera work just makes all the stupidity both dour and uninteresting. It’s a bad choice that makes the thousands of bad choices worse on both a filmmaking and a basic-human-decency level.
The film has two saving graces. One is Steve Buscemi, who plays the barber living next door to Adam Sandler. The lines he is given are terrible, and there is no existing chemistry between him and our leading man, but Buscemi will always be a welcome presence, even if he is wading in the sewage of the rest of this movie. The man never truly phones it in. The other is the final 10 minutes (spoilers to follow, as if you’re planning to see this film yourself).
Of all the baffling, startling, strange, terrible creative decisions in “The Cobbler,” its ending is the strangest. Within a few minutes, it is revealed that Steve Buscemi is actually Dustin Hoffman, looking after his family by using his magic Cobbler powers to become Buscemi. It is then revealed that Cobblers are effectively superhero guardian angels, that there is a long corridor filled with the shoes of great and powerful people they can become to help “save soles.” Hoffman leads Sandler to a limousine with the license plate “2COBBLE,” and they ride off into the sunset. Not only is this ending completely disjunctive to everything that came before it, it’s the ending to a much better movie (still terrible, but with “The Cobbler” you take what you can get). It’s bonkers, but at least it’s interesting.
I’ve spilled a lot of metaphorical ink discussing issues with “The Cobbler,” but in truth, these barely scratch the surface of what’s wrong with this movie. It is a crash course in everything not to do, not just as a person in the movie business, but as an actual person functioning in society. It is hostile, boring, unfunny, stilted, deeply rooted in poorly handled and upsetting material, and relayed through the worst acting I’ve ever witnessed. In so many words, “The Cobbler” is bad. Really bad. So bad it will make you nostalgic for “Grown Ups 2.”