Count me among the lone few who liked The Cobbler; the film currently holds a 9% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I’m unsure what critics were expecting with this lighthearted story from writer/director Tom McCarthy, perhaps something akin to his previous indie successes, The Station Agent, The Visitor, and Win,Win. Unlike those films, The Cobbler is pure fantasy, and while it’s not his best movie, it certainly isn’t a disaster.
Adam Sandler, delivering one of his best subdued performances, stars as a Max, a depressed shoe cobbler living on the Lower East Side of New York City. Max didn’t choose to become a cobbler, he took over the family business when his father skipped town on him and his mother. Now in his 40s, Max is a bachelor and cares for his ailing mom (Lynn Cohen), who suffers from dementia. Despite being stuck living at home with his mother, Max really loves his mom. The relationship created between Sandler and Cohen is nice and believable.
Life isn’t all bad for Max. He has a close friend in Jimmy (Steve Buscemi), the barber whose shop is next door to Max’s storefront, and he’s met an earnest woman who cares about the neighborhood named Carmen (Melonie Diaz). She does her best to get Max involved with stopping a developer from tearing down old apartments in favor of sky rises.
Max’s life changes when he’s working on a pair of shoes for Ludlow, a dangerous gangster played Method Man. Ludlow expects everyone to kow tow to him, so when he tells Max he’ll be back later that day for his repaired shoes, his tone implies that Max better not disappoint him. Unfortunately, Max’s stitching machine breaks down and he resorts to pulling out the antique pedal driven stitcher buried in the shop basement. He finishes the job and waits. And waits. Ludlow never shoes.
Bored and frustrated, Max notices that Ludlow’s fancy shoes are the same size as his. Max decides to try on the shoes and is shocked when he looks up and sees that he’s taken on the form of Ludlow. He looks exactly like him. And when he removes the shoes, he returns to the same old schlubby Max. It doesn’t take long for Max to realize that any shoe repaired by the old stitcher becomes magical and can grant him the ability to look like the owner of those shoes, alive or dead.
It’s silly, but I never felt like McCarthy was trying to make some profound statement in the film. Perhaps influenced by his time working for Disney (McCarthy contributed to Pixar’s Up and wrote the Jon Hamm baseball film, Million Dollar Arm), McCarthy handlers The Cobbler with a whimsical touch and lets the actors have fun.
Using his magic shoes, Max has some fun, parading around town in the form of Dan Stevens (The Guest, Downton Abbey), a transvestite and a teenage African-American boy. These new powers present him with an opportunity to get rich and score with twentysomething women, but it doesn’t take long to realize that the magic allows him to do something goo, as well. When he gets entangled with a corrupt land developer played by Ellen Barkin, he decides he must help out Carmen and her cause.
More touching is the scene midway through the film when Max puts on a pair of his father’s old shoes. Posing as his Dad (played by Dustin Hoffman), he allows his ailing mother one final date with her husband. The next morning she passes away in her sleep.
The Cobbler is not perfect, that’s for certain. Barkin seems to be phoning in her acting, and some of the other actors are kind of wooden. But Stevens and Method Man certainly are having a blast, while Hoffman and Buscemi give quiet, nuanced performances. Most important, Sandler proves that he’s so much better than the low brow comedies that have made him a rich man. There is a scene at the end of the film in which Max expressed regret and guilt over his mother that may be one of the finest moments in Sandler’s career. It caught me off guard and got me choked up.