Saturday, September 26, 2015

The Cobbler – The Punishment Begins!

...that almost sounds like a subtitle for the movie itself. In which case I imagine it would take on a much darker and considerably harder to market tone.

Anyway, this is where we get started. This was one I hadn't even considered as a candidate until viewing it as part of a group bad movie riffing...and frankly, at that point, it insisted on itself.

For anyone out there who is now asking either of the following questions: 'What the Hell is The Cobbler?' and 'Wasn't this a 2015 movie?', let me just say good questions, and I will answer both now.

Yep...let's just start knocking that low-hanging fruit right off the tree now, folks.

For the first, keep reading. I'll try not to give much away, but it should give you at least an idea. For the second, technically yes, technically no. This is one of those cases where a film was made for one year (this debuted actually last September at the Toronto International Film Festival) after which it lingered on the shelves for a while before getting a rather muted wide release earlier this year to the point where many people didn't even know this movie existed until it turned up on Netflix.

That backstory right there should be a warning sign.

The film itself is a bit of a strange hybrid, albeit one that isn't without its potential. Adam Sandler plays a descendant from a group of Jewish cobblers whose family business has been operating in New York for generations. As we learn in the prologue, this family was gifted a special stitching machine – any shoes that are stitched by this machine, when worn by a member of the family (presumably, the rules on this particular point aren't entirely made clear) they turn into the person whose shoes they're wearing. Yeah, it's a bit of hokey spin on the 'walk a mile in a person's shoes' shtick, but to be honest, in the right hands, it could still work.

But then, as you can guess by the header this is going under, these are not them.

One of the strangest things I think I've found myself saying about this movie – more than a couple of times now, actually – is how it made me genuinely appreciate the weirdly crass Adam Sandler of recent years. Yes, the movies are grating, tacky, painfully unfunny, and generally offensive out of deafness more than an actual desire for edge, to say nothing for being riddled with product placement...but at the same time, that's exactly what's advertised on the box. I can't walk into a movie like Jack and Jill and say I feel like I got cheated because I knew EXACTLY what I was getting myself into going in. Yeah, it's not a good look for Sandler, but if nothing else, I appreciate the honesty.

This is always how it starts.
One minute, you're stitching your customers/future vicims' shoes, the next you're making suits out of their skin as you crank Q. Lazarus in the next room.

The Cobbler, on the other hand, feels like it's actually trying. Which is the saddest part about it. This has some good talent going into it – the cast actually has quite a few big names in it (and until I see proof otherwise, I'm taking Dustin Hoffman's 'cinema is worse than it's ever been' interview this year as his mea culpa for his involvement in this) and is being helmed by Thomas McCarthy, the man behind the critically acclaimed The Station Agent. This had the chops to actually be, if not a great, at least pretty good 'real' fantasy drama.

As it is, the movie dances an uncomfortable line between trying to be that charming fantasy drama while still having the crass, often downright tone deaf jokes in its arsenal.

As a leading man, Sandler has been in a weird slump lately. More often than not his films tend to cast him either as an incredibly successful jerk or an absolute sad sack, neither of which really winds up endearing him to viewers particularly well. His performance as Max Simkin in this skews more towards the latter. It's a bit of a cliched idea – the guy who's honestly burnt out on running the family business and wants something more but eventually learns to appreciate the life he has. It's the kind of thing which, again, could have been done well. Hell, I think done differently, Sandler could have even managed to make this work. As it is here, however, the film can't really seem to find a way to make us care about him. That's alright for a starting point – his self-absorbed apathy being something he has to grow out of works as a jumping off point, even if it would make the 'walk a mile in someone else's shoes' metaphor a little on the nose. The problem is, by the time the movie's over, we really only get the sense he has empathy for all of maybe two people whose shoes he has walked in.

Incidentally, you never do see the poor witch that got crushed under his family business to give him those.
...and for as bad as that joke is, it's still better than the actual context.

Which leads to one of the weirder areas of the movie: the middle section where Max discovers the powers at his possession. Now, this would seem like the biggest area to mine comedy from for obvious reasons – shenanigans, pranks, mistaken identity antics, and so on. To its credit, the movie does try to go for this. Unfortunately, this also leads to where it can't help but indulge that crass little id still hiding in the center of the script. This all starts when Max first puts on a pair of shoes belonging to a thug played by Method Man (which leads to a whole other discussion for another time about this, but I digress). Not surprisingly, numerous race swaps ensue, many through a montage of Sandler trying on various pairs of shoes, including a painfully awkward joke involving the shoes of what appears to be a cross-dresser. The movie is never interested in clarifying that point, since the character mainly just exists for the sake of being another piece in what fast becomes a metaphysical prop comedy. ...God, did really just write that?

Actually, that's probably as good a point as any to hang on the problem with this scene. Again, for as much as it feels like the 'walk in someone's shoes' theme is a lynchpin of this movie, it can't be bothered to really treat the majority of the people Max is impersonating as human beings – they're setups for jokes. Of the group, only two really have much of a personality discovered to them, and neither by his actually exploring their lives – Method Man's character and Dustin Hoffman as Max's father, believed dead (I can't really call this a spoiler since what rules this movie bothers to play by make this entire scene a pretty big tip-off to what's coming).

"Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium, Meet the Fockers, this...sort of makes you whimsically nostalgic for my Ishtar days, doesn't it?"

About the only other face that gets much screen time is a character played by Dan Stevens, where Max's stint inside him starts veering painfully close to rape territory (I know someone will want to debate this, but the scene was him impersonating another man as said man's girlfriend invited him into the shower – you don't have to be an expert in movie shorthand to know this was going to lead to sex if the scene continued). This scene probably wouldn't sit as badly with me if the reason it stopped was because, despite some earlier misdeeds (prior to this the worst he pulls off is a dine and dash) he looked and went 'wait a second...this isn't me. I'm not comfortable with crossing THIS line'. Instead, he's stopped by the realization that, if he gets in the shower, he has to take off the shoes and his cover's blown. The movie has a big chance to score Max some brownie points and let us see maybe he's not a complete dick, and instead, this generation's Revenge of the Nerds debate is halted by a catch in plot mechanics.

...I know, I know, it's a little scene, but it's also part of a bigger problem with this movie. It has some really bizarre bordering on creepy morality issues at play, many of which hearken back to the problems with Max as a character. For a character the movie wants us to care about and get invested in, it's pretty quick to let Max take part in any number of very sketchy antics with his powers – besides the above, another awkward 'nothing comes of this' moment comes after the death of his mother. Where most films would use this as a self-destructive spiral where he's only hurting himself, here we see him steal a man's car disguised as another person. Look, Max, you're hurting, that's fair, but framing another person for GTA...that's one it's REALLY hard to get behind.

I'm still trying to decide if the Darth Vader mask would have made this more or less uncomfortable.

Incidentally, we're about halfway through this movie by this point. It's around here that maybe it decides to get its main plotline rolling.

Well that's not entirely fair. It's set up at bits before that point, care of Melonie Diaz as a largely wasted character trying to save the neighborhood from a slum lord looking to buy out everyone. It kind of comes up here and there after that, but largely doesn't become of any note until the back end of this movie. Even then, it comes not from Max making a conscious effort to get involved, but because Method Man threatens his life. It's the kind of plot that could have easily just coasted on by had things gone a little differently, but instead arbitrarily kicks itself off.

What starts as an apparent act of revenge soon spirals into Method Man being part of the slum lord story as a hired gun. Said slum lord being a reveal that leads me to wonder who Ellen Barkin apparently angered in the Hollywood power structure, because like a LOT of this cast, she is just wasted on this movie.

A lot of what follows can be summed up in the phrase 'by the seat of the pants'. A major character is killed off only for it to come to nothing, including the movie's own established rules being bent to keep things convenient (this will call for spoiler space. Will discuss below.) Sandler pulls a bait and switch with one of the neighborhood's holdouts (another wasted turn, this time by veteran actor Fritz Weaver) and despite everything getting utterly cocked up, the plot still works everything out.

I'll give the movie this much at least - when it comes to casting its deus ex machina, they know to aim high.

...and did I mention Steve Buscemi is in this? Why am I bringing this up now? Because after spending much of the movie as Sandler's conscience he apparently forgot he had until he kind of, sort of killed a man, he also plays a living Chekhov Rifle (again, see below), being the lynchpin for a final act reveal that takes this movie from being a kind of grounded, if morally sketchy, fantasy drama and turns it into a relatively batshit superhero origin story. I'm only half kidding when I say this, but by the end of the movie, I genuinely would not have been surprised if a one-eyed Samuel L. Jackson came out to offer Sandler a job.

In a way, the ending is the perfect encapsulation of this movie's biggest problem – it's a movie that either can't seem to decide what it is or genuinely wants to go in multiple directions at once. It wants to have the crude humor, but it also wants to be the heartfelt drama. It wants to make Max into a likable, good-hearted protagonist, but never really gives him a reason to care beyond the fact the movie literally threatens him into moving things forward.

This seems a pretty good representation to what this movie must have felt like for Method Man at times.

I wish I could at least say this movie had some good acting or directing to offset the absolute mess at its core. Unfortunately, despite some top notch names in the cast, none of it really manages to rise above the piled debris that makes up the spine of this film. I mean, the acting, directing, and score aren't really awful, but they're not really strong either. They're functional enough to not burden the movie, but not good enough to balance the other things weighing it down.

There's a part of me that almost feels bad taking this movie on, because like I said, there's ways this movie could have been good. Maybe not movie of the year, but at least passable. Which makes watching it indulge in all the low-hanging fruit and trip over itself in its attempts to seem sincere feel at best misfired, at worst downright creepy.

So completes the first act of cinematic penance. I at least plan to have one more before we go into October (let's call it pre-gaming and leave that as a hint.)


Well, I promised I'd get into some spoilers, and this is where the movie really starts to get weird and a touch disturbing.

So, remember how I mentioned rule-bending and Steve Buscemi before? Let's dovetail those.

Now, early into the movie, during the film's somewhat vaguely explained rules of the shoes, Sandler decides to try on what are revealed to be the shoes of a dead man. In the process, he realizes that his appearance is that of the owner as they are now – rotting.
This is initially introduced just as a cheap throwaway joke (and minor Chekhov Rifle) but it's also a rule that the movie sort of handwaves later on, to the point I'd swear they forgot about it were it not for the return of the rule in the final act. And while having Dustin Hoffman appear alive and well (why didn't Sandler stop to consider the risk of that before he set up plans for his mother? That could have gotten ugly otherwise) at least still works, even if it's a giant spoiler for the ending, it raises questions about the fact Sandler is able to continue wearing Method Man's shoes days after murdering the man and looking well enough to not really raise any questions. I don't know if the filmmakers just forgot that your body starts going to pot pretty quickly after dying or not.

But back to Hoffman. As I said above, yeah, the movie makes it clear pretty early on that Hoffman is alive. Not only is he alive, he's been masquerading as Buscemi for years to watch over his son. This is where the movie starts going into “...well, this just got creepy” territory. The last ten minutes or so has Hoffman reveal this secret cabal of cobblers who apparently all have this power, and his own arsenal of shoes/faces that he's been using. Which raises all manner of questions – what are their goals? What are their rules? What determines who is a good cobbler and an evil one? To this end, why did these guys turn a blind eye on Sandler framing a guy and even cover up Method Man's murder for him?

I mean, I'll admit, personally I feel like the internet goes FAR too often to the 'creepy hidden reading of *pop culture item here*' well. In fact, I feel like that well is just about dry at this point.

But here's the thing. This isn't even that hidden. It's just a matter of trying to connect the dots this movie couldn't be bothered to do. At best it highlights just how poorly constructed it is, at worst, it means this movie ends with Sandler being indoctrinated into one of the more bizarre and vaguely sinister secret societies in fiction this side of The X-Files.
...and even there, I could argue they at least had some sense of good intent under all the sinister deeds.

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