Magical Sole: Possibility-rich premise of "The Cobbler" could've used mending in execution

The Cobbler (2015)
99 min., rated PG-13.

Many seem to be coming down quite harshly on "The Cobbler" for being an Adam Sandler movie. Though he certainly stars in the titular role—and, yes, Steve Buscemi has a supporting role—this is not an execrable "Adam Sandler movie" like "Jack and Jill" or "Grown Ups 2," and good riddance for that. It's not from Happy Madison Productions. Sandler isn't in drag or putting on some annoying shtick with his voice. Instead of kicking Sandler while he's been down so many times, "The Cobbler" is a rare misstep from writer-director Thomas McCarthy, who paved a consistently good path with low-key, sensitively observed gems (2003's "The Station Agent," 2007's "The Visitor" and 2011's "Win Win"). Co-written with Paul Sado, McCarthy's film boasts a germ of a gentle, magical story for a fable, that of a shoe mender literally walking in his customers' shoes, but then paints itself into a corner and loses its way. Frank Capra, this is not. Heck, it's not even "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium."

Max Simkin (Adam Sandler), a solemn Jewish fourth-generation cobbler, has taken over his absentee father's shoe-repair store in Manhattan's Lower East Side. He only really has a full conversation with pickle-eating barber Jimmy (Steve Buscemi) next door and lives with his mother (Lynn Cohen) in Sheepshead Bay. One day, a thuggish customer named Ludlow (Clifford "Method Man" Smith) comes in for a shoe shine and drops off his alligator shoes, telling Max he needs them by 6 p.m. when the store closes. Max stitches them up, despite the stitching machine malfunctioning. Waiting for Ludlow's pick-up, he decides to try them on and, what do you know, Max has turned into the owner and starts trying on other customers' shoes or shoes that have been sitting in the shop. No matter the person he reflects, whether it be an elderly Asian man, a cross-dresser, a tattooed thug, or a creepy corpse, Max is always in a coat and red-and-black-striped scarf. When Ludlow finally comes for his shoes, the poor cobbler gets embroiled in crime and a land-development plot involving ruthless slum lord Elaine Greenawait (Ellen Barkin). Perhaps everyone's shoes will come in handy.

Meant to be whimsical and muster pathos, "The Cobbler" starts off well enough, setting some of the fun that could be had in this situation. The premise can't exactly stand up to any real scrutiny—apparently, every man in New York wears a size 10 1/2, including a big-boned boy—but there is such thing as suspension of disbelief in a tale driven by magical realism. The major problem is that writer-director Thomas McCarthy soon strips his film of its deeper potential and other avenues it could have explored. Now, one should always watch the movie that was made rather than the one that wasn't or should have been made, however, the one on screen takes the strangest directions and not in a good way. McCarthy, who used to know how to humanize his characters, tries to pass wrongheaded scenes of Max in the shoes of black thug Ludlow stealing a rich white man's shoes and car or walking out on a restaurant check in the shoes of another black man as cutesy comedic gags. Is he ignorant of the stereotypes he's perpetuating? What's more, the film has no interest in learning anything about the people whose shoes Max wears. Instead, "The Cobbler" turns into a completely different movie—and an uncompelling one—about neighborhood gentrification and gun-pointing henchmen in order to make Max a hero. After that, McCarthy pulls out a mawkish, head-shakingly silly plot turn that can't just leave a McGuffin as a McGuffin.

The tone still somehow remains pleasant throughout, with an incessant klezmer musical music bopping things along. One of the film's sweeter moments has Max putting on the stitched shoes of his absentee father (Dustin Hoffman) to cheer up his mother at home with a dinner of her favorite dish (pears) and then a slow dance. On paper, this could be creepy, but it's delicately handled. Despite Adam Sandler's name being the kiss of death when headlining a comedy (read: going on vacation to shoot a movie with his buddies and throw around some poop jokes), he is actually respectable when showing his understated dramatic chops. Here, as Max, he gives an uncommonly honest effort, playing him as a sad-eyed milquetoast with a heart of gold. Everyone else who signed on for a supporting role isn't exactly well-served. Dan Stevens is criminally wasted, amusingly playing Max in the body of a bisexual hunk for a night, and Melonie Diaz is always a delight to have around as passionate local activist Carmen, who tries getting Max involved, but the role is one-note. In the final analysis, "The Cobbler" is too inoffensive and earnest to enjoy tearing it to shreds. It's just a nice try that doesn't really work.