The Cobbler blends callousness with the sort of condescending magical sentimentality that’s insistent on the hidden dimensions of “the common man.” It’s a toxic combination that’s occasionally enlivened by lunacy, as this is one of those films that’s so bad, so misconceived, that one’s driven to keep watching to see how much worse it can get. That answer arrives in a scene in which a financially struggling white man disguises himself as a black criminal and steals a rich white man’s shoes, so that he can make off with the rich man’s car. Amazingly, director Thomas McCarthy doesn’t appear to be aware of the various loaded racial stereotypes with which he’s playing. This sequence isn’t played for suspense or poignancy, or even for satire or disreputable comedy. It’s meant to be cute, as indicated by John Debney and Nick Urata’s negligible score and the casually flip performances of the cast. This willed ignorance continues in scene after scene, as the filmmaker pits a variety of social types against one another (old Jewish man, vain rich broad, privileged bi-curious hunk, über-hottie, and so on) in bitter cage matches that are intended to court adorability rather than horror.
The launching point for these shenanigans involves the platitude that asserts that one should walk in a man’s shoes before judging him. Max (Adam Sandler) is a struggling shoe repairer in New York City who gets to do just that, when he discovers a sewing machine that supernaturally empowers him with the ability to assume the appearances of his clients. Initially, the moral lesson that Max is primed to learn from the sewing machine is simple enough, as we assume that he’ll discover that everyone’s as miserable as he is below their outer trappings of happiness, allowing him to go to bed a more content man.
But McCarthy never mines that absurdly literal-minded premise, which suggests a thematically castrated version of an SNL sketch in which Eddie Murphy posed as a white man, for its obvious empathetic potentials. This is remarkable considering that McCarthy’s the director of The Station Agent, The Visitor, and Win Win, which are all diverting yet laboriously preachy social dramas. There’s also a brittleness underneath those films’ deceptively, studiously genteel shells though (consider, for instance, the scam that sets Win Win’s plot in motion), and it reaches noxious full bloom in The Cobbler.
McCarthy evinces no interest in the people who come into Max’s store and wind up as fodder for his increasingly violent and self-absorbed escapades. Not a shred. By the film’s apparent reasoning, many of them deserve such retribution for having things Max doesn’t have, and it never occurs to Max, or to McCarthy, that these ruses might blow back on the real owners of these identities. And, in case one needs reminding, this is supposed to be a quaint ethnic comedy. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Max’s attempt at a sexual fraud fleetingly recalls the most disturbing scene in Hollow Man. Imagine that film’s cruelty as channeled through a typically half-baked Adam Sandler vehicle and you’re close to capturing The Cobbler’s pervasive grossness. This film isn’t really about a man who learns to walk in another’s shoes, as it’s yet another story of a disgruntled, self-pitying white dude doing whatever the hell he pleases, when he pleases.