My World Of Flops is Nathan Rabin’s survey of books, television shows, musical releases, or other forms of entertainment that were financial flops, critical failures, or lack a substantial cult following.
The American movie world is full of the cinematic equivalents of McDonald’s franchises: loud, flashy, and stomach-churning commercial enterprises that are homogeneous and numbingly predictable. Since making the leap from actor to filmmaker with The Station Agent, writer-director Thomas McCarthy has traveled in the opposite direction, proving himself to be a true artisan who aspires to the movie equivalent of Michelin stars and a devoted fan base, rather than the proverbial billions served.
Until recently, McCarthy made the kinds of movies cinephiles and adults (there is some overlap between the two) complained weren’t being made any more, and hadn’t been since the halcyon days of the 1970s. His movies contained small-scale human stories about complex characters whose lives are profoundly affected when unexpected encounters change the way they see the world and themselves.
These movies reflected McCarthy’s background as an actor. He wrote star-making roles for character actors like The Station Agent’s Peter Dinklage and The Visitor’s Richard Jenkins, who McCarthy reinvented as charismatic and compelling leading men. McCarthy also acted in a TV show some folks like called The Wire and was nominated for an Academy Award for his writing on Pixar’s Up.
For three movies at least, McCarthy was as close as independent film had to a sure thing. His films The Station Agent, The Visitor, and Win Win were all serious contenders for top 10 lists and awards, especially acting awards, but their value went beyond often-meaningless accolades. Against long odds and the angry demands of commerce, McCarthy made movies for grown-ups. But then he joined forces with the smug smirk behind the deplorable, juvenile Grown Ups franchise (over a half billion in box-office and counting!). Adam Sandler decided to take a break from working with the Dennis Dugans of the world and signed on to star in McCarthy’s fourth film, The Cobbler. A filmmaker who seemed incapable of making a less-than-rock-solid movie was uniting with a trash pop-culture icon in the midst of a hellacious losing streak that still shows no sign of abating.
The Cobbler desperately wants to be a contemporary version of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s fantastical tales of life among ordinary Jews, with the most Jewish conception of New York standing in for Singer’s Chelm. The film’s conception of Judaism is over-the-top almost to the point of minstrel levels, and that’s not even addressing the weird metaphysical blackface of a Jewish actor inhabiting the skin of a black character for large portions of the film.
The strange and tone-deaf Cobbler is an intensely Jewish story told in an intensely goyish fashion. It’s as if McCarthy set out to make a Challah and put all the right ingredients together, yet somehow emerged with a thick slab of Wonder Bread slathered in mayonnaise. The Cobbler begins over a century ago in the Lower East Side, because simply starting in the present with Adam Sandler—whose “Hanukkah Song” is more Jewish than the “Shema Yisrael”—playing one of his most Jewish characters, simply wouldn’t be Jewish enough. This prologue features a meeting among intensely Jewish Jews—the kind with big black beards and black hats and looks of Talmudic concentration—discussing a threat to their mutual interests and their community. In a screamingly unsubtle act of foreshadowing, a cobbler whose lineage will someday include Adam Sandler’s sad face full of frowny feelings reflects, “To truly know a man one must walk in his shoes.” He isn’t being wholly symbolic, for it seems he has come into possession of a magical stitcher that allows a very special cobbler to inhabit the body of whosever’s shoes he is wearing.
We then fast forward a hundred years or so and meet Max Simkin, a bearded shoe repairer thoroughly beaten down by life. Sandler seems exhausted and defeated from the first moment he’s on screen, relishing the job of carrying The Cobbler on his stooped shoulders about as much as Sisyphus dug his boulder-rolling responsibilities. Although Sandler was ferociously committed in Punch-Drunk Love and bravely raw in Funny People, here his idea of acting involves eschewing the man-boy fits of rage and crazy voices of his mainstream comedy romps so that nothing is left but a sad, self-pitying, self-negating void. Considering that McCarthy previously specialized in masterful character studies, this dearth of an actual character grounding the film is understandably troubling.
Sandler’s character, Max, is defined by absence as well. Though he trudges to his family’s shoe repair shop each day and dutifully plies his ancient trade, he clearly never got over his father Abraham (Dustin Hoffman) abandoning his family and disappearing. Just about all Max has to look forward to are pleasant interactions with Jimmy, a barber played by Steve Buscemi, who takes a fatherly interest in Max for reasons that become apparent in a late-film twist that needs to be seen to be jarringly disbelieved.
One day Max makes a miraculous discovery: His fantastical family stitcher allows him to inhabit the bodies of whoever’s shoes he’s wearing. An intrigued Max uses this magical contraption to get inside the body of Leon (Method Man), a lanky, malevolent aggregation of racist stereotypes. Leon is a lecherous criminal who beats up his girlfriend, as well as a shameless materialist who values nothing as much as his beloved alligator shoes and collection of expensive watches.
It’s hard to watch the creepy racial dynamics at play in The Cobbler and not come to the conclusion that the filmmakers wish they too lived in a world where scary-seeming black guys were furtively nebbishy Jewish white guys. Max uses Leon’s body to his own ends, and the film excuses his actions by making Leon a hate-worthy, over-the-top villain, the kind of guy who responds to news that Max’s mother has just died by threatening to have Max join her if he doesn’t hurry up and do his bidding.
The Cobbler wants to be a nice movie for nice people, but the movie is ugly and weirdly mean-spirited in ways it doesn’t seem to understand. Early in his misadventures, Max decides to see how the impossibly beautiful live when he slaps on the shoes and inhabits the gorgeous body of Emiliano (Dan Stevens). In this new guise, Max visits Emiliano’s model girlfriend, who beckons him to come into the shower, ostensibly for some hot, hot shower sex. Max is initially excited and aroused but then he gets concerned and backs out, although it’s not clear whether that’s because he realizes that it would be morally wrong, if not criminal, to have sex with someone who thinks you’re someone else, or if it’s solely because his real identity would be revealed if he were to take off his shoes in preparation for some watery fucking.
The Cobbler inexplicably throws an element of transphobia into the mix along with its weird, anachronistic racism and rape-filled conception of sex and gender. Max sometimes takes on the body of a cross-dresser in his endeavors and the humor, such as it is, comes from people’s discomfort with how bad and awkward he looks dressed as a woman. At one point Leon calls the cross-dresser “She-Man,” which is not a phrase that belongs in any movie in 2014, or ever.
The more you think about The Cobbler, the more disturbing and nonsensical it becomes. Max asks his mother what she would do if she could do anything and she pines for one last date with the husband she thinks abandoned her. So Max, being a soft touch, decides to put on the shoes of father Abraham so that he can treat her to one last magical night of romance with her husband, who is actually her own son in disguise (think about that for a while, or don’t, if you treasure your sanity). The date appears to be purely platonic, but it’s hard not to be creeped out by the quasi-incestuous overtones. Melonie Diaz co-stars as a painfully arbitrary activist love interest, and Ellen Barkin is a nasty powerbroker, but neither character makes as much of an impact as Max’s weird incestuous mini-romance with his own mother.
It’s hard to recall the last comedy as devoid of gags as The Cobbler, a joke-every-10-minutes romp if ever there was one. The filmmakers devote much of their time and energy to a screamingly arbitrary subplot suspiciously identical to those found in 1980s breakdancing movie, where a bunch of soulful city survivors must join together to fight the sinister aims of big-money real-estate developers. And honestly, a series of gratuitous breakdancing sequences would give this clammy corpse of a film something resembling a pulse.
But the film saves the worst for last. After Max is nearly killed during some Leon-connected violence (those black people, always involved in crime and bloodshed!), he wakes up in the barber shop next door and is informed that his father had not abandoned the family after all, but used the magical stitcher to inhabit the body of Jimmy, so that he could keep a watchful eye on his son without exposing him to the danger of the bad guys who were after him, or something.
Max is a little chagrined to learn that his whole life has been a lie, but then he sees the upside to it, especially once his dad reveals the rest of the magical shoes he and his family use to benefit humanity. In The Cobbler, cobblers don’t just fix shoes; they’re also the “guardians” of “souls.” The film ends by hinting at the existence of a fantasy realm where modest shopkeepers are actually powerful wizards, or some such shit. Honestly, after watching the film a second time, it still barely makes sense to me.
There’s a meta aspect at play as these two very dissimilar cultural figures are trying on each other’s careers for a spin. McCarthy, who has lived his career as a filmmaker in the cozy confines of arthouse movies, is seeing what it feels like to make a high-concept comedy fantasy vehicle for a man who up until recently was one of the biggest and most dependable box-office attractions of the past 30 years. And Sandler got to make a small-scale movie with a respected auteur. But the fusion ended up playing to neither’s strengths. Sandler is neutered, overwhelmed, and defeated, and McCarthy just seems lost.
What’s most frustrating about The Cobbler is that within its disfigured corpse lies the bones of a film worthy of McCarthy’s oeuvre and reputation. McCarthy could have crafted a small-scale character study about a melancholy New York cobbler wrestling with the complications of a modern world that renders him and his trade quaintly anachronistic. This alternate version of The Cobbler would also have the benefit of encouraging Sandler to deliver a nuanced and soulful performance in the vein of The Station Agent’s Dinklage, The Visitor’s Jenkins, and Win Win’s Paul Giamatti, instead of being a person-shaped lump of misery.
The Cobbler would have been infinitely more magical if it had eschewed mysticism altogether and embraced the small-scale humanity that made the director’s first three movies so special. McCarthy previously made lovely little films, but he outdid himself in The Cobbler by making a movie that wasn’t just small: It was an absolute zero, both commercially and creatively.
Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success: Fiasco