On Sunday, February 28, the Academy will honor the previous year in cinema with a slew of awards, waiting until the end of the night to bestow Best Picture on one of eight nominees. Leading up to the ceremony, we’re posting a piece a day on each of these major Oscar contenders.
Plenty of high-profile filmmakers released critical and/or financial flops last year, including Michael Mann (Blackhat), Brad Bird (Tomorrowland), Cameron Crowe (Aloha), and Andy and Lana Wachowski (Jupiter Ascending). But only one beleaguered auteur of 2015 wound up nominated for the Best Director Academy Award the following January. To be clear, Tom McCarthy isn’t up for an Oscar because of a last-minute groundswell of support for The Cobbler, his 2015 disaster. He’s up for an Oscar because less than a year after The Cobbler snuck in and out of theaters, McCarthy followed his commercial and critical nadir with Spotlight, one of the most acclaimed films of 2015 and a real contender for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars. It’s certainly possible, if unlikely, that McCarthy will someday surpass either his actual achievement (rapturously reviewed and financially successful adult drama up for multiple Oscars) or his dubious one (the lowest-grossing Adam Sandler movie and, perhaps more remarkably, one of the worst-reviewed). But for now, these two films add up to an achievement of their own: McCarthy is in the rare position of reaching the highest and lowest points in his directorial career in the same year.
As such, it may seem difficult to reconcile the writer-director of The Cobbler with the writer-director of Spotlight. And McCarthy is, indeed a writer-director: In both instances, he had a collaborator on the screenplay but did receive a writing credit, clearly establishing his ownership over the films. If anything, The Cobbler sounds more like a typical Tom McCarthy picture—something in the vein of The Station Agent or The Visitor—than Spotlight does. In The Cobbler, Adam Sandler plays the lonely and soft-spoken title character, whose experiences open up when he discovers a stitching machine that allows him to step into the shoes he repairs and physically transform into his customers. McCarthy’s previous films don’t deal with actual magic, but it’s easy to draw the connection between The Station Agent’s initially closed-off Peter Dinklage, The Visitor’s lonely Richard Jenkins, and Sandler’s shoe expert.
There are currents of loneliness in Spotlight, too, as a group of Boston Globe journalists work the emerging but untold story of widespread sexual abuse and accompanying cover-ups perpetuated by members of the Catholic Church. It comes through most clearly in the film’s treatment of the Mark Ruffalo character, a tenacious journalist whose personal life seems shabby and unkempt at best; he’s often captured alone in the frame, as when a shot of him jogging proceeds directly to a shot of him traversing a mostly empty newsroom, on his way into work on a weekend. The movie illustrates other characters’ isolation, too, albeit less directly; the cross-cut investigative scenes emphasize the journalists’ separate paths, and the abuse victims they interview often feel cut off from a normal life.
As in other McCarthy movies, the characters make headway against that isolation. Here it happens through both journalistic teamwork (the Spotlight team works collaboratively even when they’re apart, and share the frame in master shots of their little research enclave) and advocacy (as they push for justice for the priests’ victims). But the film’s triumphs are harder won and its human connections less warm than other McCarthy films; they’re more about relief than vindication or friendship. His previous semi-realistic fables have their charms, but they’re movies where personal growth and warm humanity come with relative ease. This tendency reaches a nadir in The Cobbler, which traffics in solutions so easy that they become inexplicable and then, in the movie’s closing moments, downright insane.
It’s not unusual that The Cobbler does sound and even play like a Tom McCarthy movie, albeit one that has gone rotten from sitting on the counter too long. What’s truly strange is that it manages to simultaneously play a lot like an Adam Sandler movie. It is an Adam Sandler movie, of course, but it’s not one of the Happy Madison productions that make up most of his filmography. It’s one of his occasional forays into quieter, more reflective films for other directors. In that realm, The Cobbler is very much of a piece with Spanglish, Reign Over Me, and Men, Women, And Children, all of which used Sandler’s talent for playing recessive misfits and/or suburban schlubs in service of movies that should be much better than they actually are. Only Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love and Judd Apatow’s Funny People have managed to construct strong homes for a less broadly comic Sandler, but in his other serious films, the actor gives a good performance despite the mess that spills around him. The Cobbler fits this model except for the good performance part; Sandler brings his trademark morose sensitivity, but dials his acting so far back that he appears bone-tired not by his character’s cobbling life but by his obligation as an actor to show up to a movie set every day.
This sleepiness, common to late-period Happy Madison, helps to bridge the two types of Adam Sandler movies. More than any “serious” Sandler movie since Punch-Drunk Love, The Cobbler absorbs his Happy Madison tendencies into a purportedly more serious context (and with far less finesse than Paul Thomas Anderson managed). To wit: The Cobbler plays up his character’s Jewishness (not always a feature of Sandler films, but a major part of You Don’t Mess With The Zohan, Eight Crazy Nights, and Jack And Jill, among others), indulges in father-centric sentimentality, gives Sandler a much-younger love interest, and turns some of its supporting characters into caricatures that are tedious at best and racist at worst. It even features a supporting turn from Happy Madison rep-company member Steve Buscemi, another strange link from the indie world to the Sandler universe. The Cobbler, which traffics in myriad discomforts such as Sandler’s character disguising himself as his own father to take his elderly mother on a date and the only major black character in the film being depicted as an irredeemable thug, feels like a twinkly indie movie reverse-engineered from the fake-ass sentimentality that inevitably creeps into Sandler’s broad comedies, unable to shake their worst tendencies in the process.
If I sound caught up in squaring the world-beating terribleness of The Cobbler with the more pedestrian terribleness (and occasional—lately, extremely occasional—fun) of Sandler’s broad-comedy work, that’s because the film provokes a kind of perverse fascination. What starts as a seemingly straightforward path (McCarthy and Sandler give in to their worst instincts and make a very bad movie) quickly turns into a rabbit hole of vexing questions: How did McCarthy let the Happy Madison influence to seep into his work? What made Sandler choose this particular script to shore up his indie cred? How did the filmmakers miss the pervasive creepiness and sourness within their purportedly gentle urban fable? Did anyone involved with The Cobbler expect it to generate a sequel, the way the film’s bonkers ending seems to prompt? The emergence of Spotlight in the same calendar year initially appears to provide one more twist for the Cobbler saga—the point where the earlier movie’s very existence becomes a subject of Zodiac-like unknowability.
Doubtless that’s not the way Spotlight is supposed to evoke that other research drama co-starring Mark Ruffalo. I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that McCarthy or anyone else had Zodiac in mind when making Spotlight, but the two films share a certain kinship (just as The Cobbler shares a certain kinship with Click). Both Zodiac and Spotlight define their investigating characters largely within the terms of this investigation, becoming procedurals so detail-oriented that they transcend the quotidian nature of that classification. They differ in that the isolation and obsession of a long-term investigation don’t seep into the atmosphere of Spotlight the way they do in David Fincher’s film. Really, it’s not a particularly fair comparison, given that Zodiac is one of the best American movies of the past few decades. But that lack of palpable dread is part of why Spotlight, rigorous and exacting as it is, sometimes feels like “only” a movie.
The slightly workmanlike quality of Spotlight is fitting, though, for a movie about the hard, actual work of journalism. The film itself is a testament to McCarthy’s hard work, and it would be tempting to read it as penance for the terrible work of his previous feature. But admirably, McCarthy hasn’t performed a fashionable trashing of The Cobbler for the press. He told New York magazine that while the pans stung, “[he] love[s] that movie. If you have four children and suddenly one’s wacky, you go, ‘Hey, he’s wacky, but I love the kid.’” Moreover, he began work on Spotlight well before its predecessor had finished production, and it’s easy to see how The Cobbler theoretically fits in with his previous films. Rather than a make up for The Cobbler in particular, then, Spotlight stands in contrast to McCarthy’s entire filmography. In terms of form, it doesn’t represent a galvanizing departure from his usual unfussy style, but it does more legwork than a sweet little slip of a movie like The Station Agent. In that way, Spotlight and The Cobbler work together to prove McCarthy’s mettle both as a filmmaker and a dedicated worker.
The Cobbler’s status as a blip in his critically respected run, directly preceding his best-loved film, especially refutes the sad-decline narrative often applied to filmmakers. Said narrative is a sibling to first-album syndrome (as in, “They never made an album better than their…”) that tries to nail down a point of no return, creatively speaking (as in, “His movies have never been the same since…”). It’s a reductive way of looking at plenty of filmmakers who aren’t Rob Reiner, a constructive that favors writing off rather than paying attention. In fact, McCarthy’s two 2015 films should give hope to even Reiner-level hopelessness: Someone made The Cobbler, arguably a worse movie than anything Rob Reiner has ever directed, then turned around and made something smart, precise, and disciplined. Spotlight is a relatively conventional film, but in its finely honed craftsmanship, it defies a lot of conventional wisdom.