A cobbler starts to use an antique stitching machine in the basement of his New York shoemaking shop when his relatively modern machine stops working. As it turns out, the old device does the job just fine—and is endowed with magical powers to boot. When he puts on a pair of shoes that have been repaired using the machine, the cobbler in question is transformed into the owner of those shoes. From there on, all sorts of things happen; most of them are not particularly surprising, but a couple are quite unexpected.
Someone clearly thought that what I just described would make for a good movie. I can see how the concept might be appealing on paper, but it doesn’t work nearly as well in the resultant film. Only occasionally does The Cobbler manage to be engaging, and then only briefly. Moreover, the movie is forcedly sentimental and, what’s worse, has no genuine soul. The laughs are few and far between, which is perhaps to be expected from a film that repeatedly uses the supposed shock value of a cross-dresser as a joke; funny it is not.
Adam Sandler plays Max Simkin, the protagonist of The Cobbler. Max is evidently tired of everyday life and kind of listless, but Sandler really dials down his performance. In situations that call for a rather strong emotional reaction, Sandler’s acting remains curiously muted. It’s as if someone told Sandler to restrain himself and he went overboard in doing just that.
Steve Buscemi and Dustin Hoffman add a little zest to the proceedings in the roles of Jimmy and Max’s father Abraham, respectively. Ellen Barkin plays the chief antagonist Elaine Greenawalt, and Cliff “Method Man” Smith appears as her henchman Leon Ludlow; both acquit themselves well. As Max’s mother, Lynn Cohen delivers a lovely performance, and the dinner scene with her and Hoffman is arguably the best moment in the film.
Co-writer/director Thomas McCarthy does not achieve a working balance between the various genre elements included in his and Paul Sado’s screenplay. Consequently, The Cobbler is a tonally uneven movie. It doesn’t know what it wants to be—a comedy, a drama, or a thriller—or, rather, tries to be all of them but fails.
I want to take a moment to discuss one particular scene in the film in a little more detail. Max, wearing the repaired shoes of one of his customers, enters the apartment of said customer and is invited into the shower by the customer’s girlfriend for some amorous activities. He happily goes along with the plan until he realizes that he will have to take off his shoes in order to proceed. Doing so would change him back into Max again. Therefore, he concludes that he can’t do it and quickly leaves the apartment. My interpretation of the scene under consideration is that it dawns on Max just how wrong the whole situation actually is, and so he exits the building. A case could be made, however, that Max would have gone all the way if only there had been a way for him to remain transformed in the nude. While I highly doubt that the latter interpretation is what the filmmakers had in mind, the scene nevertheless leaves a sour aftertaste.
After delivering a predictable revelation, the movie ends with a twist so weird that probably no one could see it coming. The film deserves some credit for taking the story in that direction right at the very end. But let’s hope The Cobbler isn’t the beginning of a new franchise.