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REVIEW: It’s difficult to understand Adam Sandler. On the one hand – a very big hand – he churns out one mindless, by the numbers, comedy film after another, seemingly running through the motions and getting paid. A lot. On the other hand, there is Punch-Drunk Love. Admittedly these two parts are not equal. But the latter is such a significant departure and so remarkable an achievement that its influence remains the gold standard, no matter what he produces, as what we hope he will do again. With The Cobbler, the wait continues.
Sandler plays Max Simkin, a kind of frumpy, unmarried middle-aged man who looks as if he’s spent too much time in the shadows. Worse, like that’s where he prefers. Quiet, patient, passive, Max works as a cobbler in his father’s long running shoe shop. Thing is, his father isn’t around, having abandoned his family and the shop years before. And so we have the main character, a forlorn soul with little to care for, no ambition and a bitter past. He lives with his mother, who is slightly demented and ailing fast. Next door to the cobbler shop is a barber, an old family friend. Right away, we have the ingredients for something special, and indeed, the first ten or so minutes of Max Simkin’s story shows tremendous potential. Sandler seems ready to take this disenfranchised character and reveal some inner agony and allow us, much like he did as Barry Egan in Punch-Drunk Love, to explore who he is. Indeed, it appears that Sandler might have been told this was in fact an art film and directed to unleash that Barry Egan-esque magic for high drama while everyone else was told they were in a standard Sandler comedy (Barkin especially). There’s no hesitation in fact, in showing him in this light, but when the theme finally shifts, it shifts hard with increasingly faster rates, into mediocrity and pointlessness.
The premise is clever. You don’t know a person until you walk in their shoes. So one day, when his current stitching machine fails, Max unearths the old ancestral foot-operated stitcher down in the basement. What’s amazing is not that the archaic machine still works, but what it produces. When Max slips on the newly stitched shoes, he literally becomes the man who owns them. More specifically, only what that person looks like. Max is still Max but in another person’s body. The film weakly constructs a plot around this magic: Max can walk around as any man he has the shoes of – he is tempted by a pair of red stilettos and this could have been a very intriguing part of the movie, but instead, when he does wear the high heels, it’s not a woman but a man who wears women’s clothes, which also could have been fascinating. What’s more disappointing about that revelation is when we find out the pointy heeled shoes are a plot point and feel, apologies, shoed into the story for this one specific reason. Lazy. But back to being any man he wants to be; that’s where it could have been dramatic, living these stories and the consequences therein. But instead, it veers into a standard pot-boiler and offers nothing redeeming. Except, on closer inspection, I am reminded of how M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable has long been theorized to be a superhero story. The Cobbler too, I believe, is cut from the same cloth, or rather, cobbled from the same sole. Here are 6 reasons why:
To begin, we first need to define a few archetypes of the superhero origin film genre. These are the tried and true tropes that we’ve come to expect in these movies and should be recognizable to any fan.
1) discovers they can do a thing or things that a normal human cannot because he or she is
2) wears a costume.
3) explores their new power’s strengths and more importantly, its limitations.
4) has a love interest that they hide their powers from but will eventually use that power to save them.
5) has a mentor/older person to remind them of their responsibility.
6) faces a nemesis with diabolical schemes.
Now, using these principles, let’s apply them to the story of Max Simkin. Minor SPOILERS in effective.
Max Simkin’s origin story begins with the discovery of a mythical stitching machine that imbibes him with the ability to look like someone else. Using this new power he learns that he can literally become another person, completely fooling anyone into believing he is that person. The power is mythical and unlimited and from unknown origins, handed down from generation to generation. Max discovers this power by accident, not recognizing the source or ability of the stitching machine’s power until he wears the shoes it creates. The person he is imitating is not affected, but sure is surprised when he meets his doggelgänger.
Like any superhero with new powers, he is reluctant at first, surprised and also very curious. Max is unbelieving of the power. Also, Max keeps his powers a secret, never telling anyone of his new ability, maintaining his alter-ego of a nearly invisible shoe cobbler to better serve his community. While his powers are new, he is not yet aware of its potential. Or its limitations. But first, he needs to look the part.
Max wears a red and black striped knitted scarf, often with a long charcoal grey overcoat while in another man’s shoes, making it clear that we know who is who during each scene, but more importantly, this establishes the hero’s costume. Bold, bright, empowering and easy to spot, these colors clearly identify him and give him a signature look. As The Cobbler, the red scarf and jacket are his cape and cowl and give him the proper style. Now he’s ready to test himself.
With any new power, there is curiosity as to what can be done with it in the real world. Like Spider-Man on the rooftops, stumbling and flailing about, Max also is unsteady in his first few tries as another person. He becomes an Asian man and joyfully succeeds in masquerading about Chinatown, never once suspected of begin who he really is. It encourages more. Another time, he dons the shoes of a dead man, and resembling a prototypical zombie, discovers that may not be the best thing to do as he horrifies some school boys. He assumes the identity of Emiliano (Dan Stevens), a rich and very handsome neighbor (with a sexual secret) using his power to enter his apartment where his stunning girlfriend Taryn (Kim Cloutier) is in the shower. She, thinking he is Emiliano, invites him to join her, which Max hurriedly accepts, but realizes mid-undress that if he removes his shoes, he will reveal his true identity. He scurries away, learning a very important limitation. He eventually learns to carry a bag (i.e., utility belt) with different shoes wherever he goes.
Before all of this, Max meets Carmen, a do-gooder who is raising awareness and getting signatures to stem the over development of the community, which is destroying the family setting of the neighborhood. Cherub-like and unshakably true, her plight will become personal to Max and involves some level of danger. Max will eventually come to find a way to use his powers to rescue her and a number of other neighborhood-related calamities, righting wrongs at every turn.
Every hero needs a guiding hand, be it a father or aunt or uncle or even a trusted butler. Max is not without his. Wiser, experienced and revealing a history that gives Max a stronger sense of investment to his new role, they are ever by his side. When Max’s truly understands the weight of his future, the voice of the mentor reminds him that with this power comes great responsibility (where have we heard that before?), for he is in charge of the souls of many and can alter the course of history.
Every superhero needs a villain, often more than one. Max faces two in The Cobbler (a name that admittedly sounds more like the villain than the actual villains), both of whom are colorful overly-drawn characters. First is Leon Ludlow (Method Man) as a small time hoodlum. He is the entry level bad guy and Max learns much about how to better use his power. He learns about consequences and more importantly confidence. Elaine Greenawalt (Ellen Barkin) is a slumlord who is looking to evict residents and sell her properties to big developers. She is comically over-done with flamboyant mannerisms, eccentric wardrobe, and a pair of thick-headed henchmen who follow her blindly. Her schemes come to a halt when an old man remains in one building while all others have left and becomes the catalyst that brings all members of this story together with Max, now highly in-tune with his powers, and ready for the showdown that risks lives and has great weight if failed. Her monologing and hubris further solidify her as the story’s villain, painting her in bright shades of evil. Barkin is in another world here so far over the top, she probably needed oxygen assistance.
All of these clearly fit the superhero genre mold and together reveal that the film was either mismarketed, tampered with in post editing, or purposefully left ambiguous in a clever twist that few were able to recognize. Either way, the ending, which is the last important element of the superhero movie template is the hint at what’s to come: a sequel.
I’ll leave you with these questions:
Given what Max can do, and the manner in which he does it, how is the ending possible? The people in the car that arrive suddenly could have no way of knowing where Max was nor be able to accomplish what they did with such precise timing. And more so, weren’t their actions toward Max’s predicament as dangerous if not more so than what Max was already facing?