“The Cobbler” is a wildly ill-conceived curio from director Tom McCarthy, who co-wrote with Paul Sado. The misstep is especially startling given McCarthy’s previous scripting and helming trifecta of “The Station Agent,” “The Visitor” and “Win Win.”
A murky, Yiddish-language prologue set in 1903 gives way to present-day Max Simkin (Adam Sandler), a mopey fourth-generation cobbler on New York’s Lower East Side. Max’s world turns upside down when he discovers that if he uses his great-grandpa’s long-dormant sewing machine to stitch up a pair of shoes, he can miraculously slip on said shoes and transform into their owners. But to what end?
The gimmick is marginally amusing as Max tests it out in ways both naughty and nice. But so many holes, questions and contradictions arise that it’s hard to square the rules of the game. How Max’s magical power works within the story’s convoluted evils-of-gentrification subplot adds to the muddle.
If the movie’s second half makes only the barest sense, its coda, involving Max’s estranged dad (Dustin Hoffman), is too ridiculous for words. And does any man in New York not wear size 101/2 shoes?
It’s also worth noting that the film sometimes takes a surprisingly tone-deaf approach to race and ethnicity, particularly in its portrayal of Max’s nemesis, the abusive gangster Ludlow (Cliff “Method Man” Smith).
As the movie is a comedy in theory only, Sandler delivers an appropriately obedient, understated performance. But because we learn so little about Max, and because Sandler’s not playing the folks he morphs into (those actors wanly attempt to “play” Max), there’s a limit to what the actor can accomplish.
The supporting cast, including Steve Buscemi, Ellen Barkin (in the world’s worst hairdo), Melonie Diaz, Dan Stevens and Lynn Cohen, all follow orders but, like Sandler, are sidelined by the head-scratching narrative.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for violence, language, brief partial nudity.
Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes. In English and Yiddish with subtitles.
Playing: Sundance Sunset, Los Angeles; Laemmle’s Playhouse 7, Pasadena; AMC Orange 30; AMC Ontario Mills 30.