Every once in a while, Adam Sandler takes a run at critical relevance. He makes his dough from the Grown Ups and Blendeds on his CV, but then he gets inspired and plays an adult, rather than a man-child, teaming up with a director with chops for a film that at least attempts to reach a bit higher than That's My Boy.
Sometimes it works, as in Paul Thomas Anderson's gorgeous Punch-Drunk Love, or the actor's surprisingly deep performance in longtime friend Judd Apatow's Funny People. Sometimes it doesn't, as in the 9/11 drama Reign Over Me - and now, as in The Cobbler.
Directed by Thomas McCarthy, who had a stellar record helming such films as The Station Agent and Win Win, The Cobbler is a failed fairy tale with a saccharine, klezmer-inflected tone undercut by the movie's own plot.
Sandler plays Max Simkin, a downtrodden shoe repairman who discovers that the stitcher in his basement, passed down through four generations of his family, has magical powers. If he works a pair of shoes on the stitcher (in his size, 101/2), he becomes the shoes' owner. One pair makes him into a big-boned teenage boy, another into a transvestite, another into a neighborhood tough (played by rapper Method Man).
Co-written by McCarthy and Paul Sado, the movie is supposed to examine the proverb about walking a mile in another man's shoes. Simkin takes the concept in directions that are supposed to feel whimsical but are instead just problematic. He commits petty crimes under the guises of three black men. He becomes his studly neighbor (Downton Abbey alum Dan Stevens) and almost beds the man's girlfriend, stopping only because removing his shoes would mean losing his disguise. He goes on a date with his own senile mother as his long-gone father.
After that, it's simply hard to feel for the guy.
The film has issues other than Max's dalliances in other people's lives. The beginning languishes too long in Max's dourness, killing any quirky momentum that could have propelled the movie. As The Cobbler progresses, the plot veers into something stranger, bringing in Ellen Barkin's real estate developer in the third act as the movie's main villain, with gentrification of Manhattan's Lower East Side ultimately acting as the real scourge.
It's an odd twist for a film that continues to grow more perplexing as it walks, not runs, toward an unsatisfying end.
The Cobbler ** (Out of four stars)
Directed by Thomas McCarthy. With Adam Sandler, Dustin Hoffman, Steve Buscemi, Ellen Barkin. Distributed by Image Entertainment.
Running time: 1 hour, 39 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (some violence, language, brief partial nudity).
Playing at: AMC Loews Cherry Hill 24.