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TORONTO — Expectations rise when Adam Sandler makes a movie with a director known for something other than Adam Sandler movies. Though often lazy and sometimes intolerable when surrounded by yes men, Sandler has given deeply moving performances for Judd Apatow and Mike Binder; with Paul Thomas Anderson in Punch-Drunk Love, he made one of this young century’s essential romances. So one might be forgiven for having too-high hopes of The Cobbler, which teams the actor with Station Agent director Thomas McCarthy. As it turns out, the likeable but ordinary film is much closer to the usual Sandler vehicle than to The Visitor. It is better than and just as commercial as 2006’s Click, another film offering Sandler magical powers with life lessons attached; that may bode well for box office, but being able to compare a new film by Thomas McCarthy to one by Waterboy helmer Frank Coraci is a sad occasion.
In this supernatural parable, Max Simkin operates a Lower East Side shoe-repair shop that has been in the family since the tenement days. When his modern stitching machine goes on the fritz one day, he discovers that any shoe he works on with his great-grandfather’s ancient stitcher has magical powers: If he can get his feet into those shoes, he is physically transformed into their owner.
Cue a fun sequence in which Max, a middle-aged man who’s lately been lamenting the schlubbiness of his life, takes some walks on the wild side. He dines-and-dashes at a fancy restaurant in one man’s body; takes a convertible sportscar for a joyride in another; and wears a Chinese man’s shoes to feel at home on a stroll through Chinatown. In the most imaginative test-drive, he becomes one of the handsome high-lifers (Dan Stevens) who have invaded his neighborhood over the years: Given sudden access to women he has lusted after, Max finds some funny ways to botch the fantasy.
The thoughtful viewer will question the moral ramifications of using someone else’s face to do things that could get a person in trouble. The film is never really going to address this, even after it doubles down as Max gets messed up with garden-variety gangsta Ludlow (Cliff “Method Man” Smith), having Max do things that could very easily get somebody else killed. McCarthy and Paul Sado‘s script is littered with ideas not fully explored: If, for instance, you wear the shoes of the father who left you years ago (Dustin Hoffman) to give your aged mother (Lynn Cohen) the romantic reunion dinner she has long pined for, won’t you be expected at some point to at least passionately kiss your own mom, instead of tucking her into bed sweetly and leaving without explanation?
But back to Ludlow, who becomes central to the story. In a movie built on the idea of walking in someone else’s shoes, shouldn’t learning to see others as more than stereotypes be fairly central to the plot’s development? Ludlow remains a crudely drawn thug to the end, a plot-driving caricature who would raise eyebrows even if he weren’t coming from the man who, in The Visitor, put us in the shoes of others without the aid of magic sewing machines.
While impersonating Ludlow, Max learns of a moustache-twirling scheme by a slumlord (Ellen Barkin) to force out the last remaining tenant of a building she wants to sell to developers. Here’s an opportunity for Max to help the local tenants’ rights activist (Melonie Diaz) whose dimples charmed him during her Gentrification 101 speech in the film’s opening scenes. The hustle he dreams up is fun and satisfying, however many holes one might poke in its mechanics.
Sandler is agreeably dialed-down here, and not only because, given the transformational conceit, other actors are playing his role when he’d ordinarily be mugging. While it’s not much of a test of his range, the film does, like his endearingly ridiculous You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, also work Jewishness into the story in fruitful ways; even John Debney‘s very nice score, with clarinet solos that evoke klezmer without imitating it, recalls the tribal roots of Max’s new discovery.
Steve Buscemi, who has joined Sandler in some of his worst films, is a key asset here. As the barber who has worked next door to the cobbler’s shop for decades, he singlehandedly evokes the neighborhood’s working-class roots and is on hand for the film’s most thematically successful scenes. The credibility he lends is deflated somewhat in the story’s epilogue, whose secrets-exposed fantasy both raises new red flags in the practicality department and diminishes a welcome theme of respect for tradesmen, by suggesting one can easily take on another’s hard-earned craft when needed.
Production company: Voltage Pictures
Cast: Adam Sandler, Steve Buscemi, Dustin Hoffman, Lynn Cohen, Melonie Diaz, Cliff “Method Man” Smith, Ellen Barkin, Dan Stevens
Director: Thomas McCarthy
Screenwriters: Thomas McCarthy, Paul Sado
Producer: Mary Jane Skalski
Executive producers: Michael Bederman, Nicolas Chartier, Zev Foreman
Director of photography: Mott Hupfel
Production designer: Stephen Carter
Editor: Tom McArdle
Music: John Debney
Sales: WME, Gersh Agency
No rating, 98 minutes
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