by Philip Price
The case of Adam Sandler is a continuing saga of fascination for me. It is hard to pinpoint what exactly his motivations are whether they be in the realm of making movies because he genuinely loves movies or simply in making money. Unfortunately, at this point in his career many wouldn't even consider his movies to be comedies anymore as it's apparent his domination over his little part of the box office has been slightly waning as he's continued to repeat himself as the same guy in “Grown Ups” (10%), “Just Go With It” (19%), “Jack & Jill” (a mere 3%, which only slightly better than the 0% “Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star” scored which Sandler helped write and produce), “That's My Boy” (his only deviation in character and highest ranking tomatometer score at 20%), “Grown Ups 2” (7%) and last year’s “Blended” (14%). That, in his mainstream films, Sandler has had to resort to sequels and a third reunion with Drew Barrymore let us know he's running on fumes to preserve the lifestyle he and his family have grown accustomed to. “Jack & Jill” was the turning point that shifted the atmosphere around his movies from always being dismissed by critics yet typically having a strong enough following of fans who showed up to watch him do his thing to an all-around frustration. It became evident the ever-reliant audience was shrinking and might one day be no more and so Sandler has turned both to the ever-profitable family film market in the form of two “Hotel Transylvania” films and this summer’s “Pixels,” as well as trying to return to more subtle, dramatic work that might not only reaffirm to all of his haters that he can actually do good work, but that he actually cares about the craft and art of making movies. The bad news is that in his effort to subvert public expectations he has delved into two independent, inherently more artistic pictures that have consequently been ravaged by critics. On paper both “Men, Women & Children” and “The Cobbler” should be home runs in terms of critical darlings: credible directors, one relevant to today’s issues and one with a rather interesting premise, both with stellar supporting casts and yet it still seems the Sand Man can do no right.
While this was certainly intended to be a review of “The Cobbler,” the latest film from writer/director Thomas McCarthy (“The Station Agent,” “The Visitor,” “Win Win”), but when thinking about the career path of Mr. Sandler and how he has come to star in such a film as “The Cobbler” things not only become more interesting, but more curious as to why, even when he goes the way his critics seemingly ask him to, he can't catch a break. First though, let us talk about “The Cobbler” for what it is and what it is is simply an average film. It has some neat ideas, some missed opportunities and a rather convoluted third act that tries waaaayyy too hard to have Sandler do an unnecessary Danny Ocean impersonation, but overall it's not horrible and not nearly as bad as you've likely heard. Chances are, though, that you haven't heard how bad “The Cobbler” is because you probably haven't even heard of the movie. This is because it was ushered on to VOD last weekend without any pre-release marketing and no intent of opening it in any theaters because of the beating it took at TIFF last fall.
In the film, Sandler plays Max Simkin who is a Jewish shoe repairman working in the same, small New York shop that his family has owned for generations. His father (Dustin Hoffman) having walked out on he and his mother (Lynn Cohen) when he was younger, forces Max to make little progress in pursuing any of his own life goals and instead places him in the circumstances of doing what his father didn't in staying behind to take care of his mother. It is after a visit from local gangster Leon Ludlow (Method Man) that Max accidentally stumbles upon a magical heirloom that allows him to step into the lives of his customers through their shoes. The hook here is supposed to be that Max is granted the ability to walk in another man’s shoes to go on his own journey of self-discovery, but this is only enough to justify what could probably be a solid little short film. In order to extend it to feature length McCarthy has pulled in a thousand other plot devices we've seen countless times before that include the likes of Ellen Barkin as a mob boss, Melanie Diaz as an empowered activist/love interest and Steve Buscemi as Max's next door neighbor that clearly has more to do than his role suggests. Much of this is unnecessary, though some of it is handled well, but it's all about gauging what is necessary and much of this is not.
This is all something of a shame because obviously this, along with “Men, Women & Children,” had the potential to be something really interesting and possibly even substantial. While “The Cobbler” certainly isn't very good by any stretch of the imagination, it isn't horrible and has likely garnered more hate than it would have had someone else been cast in Sandler's role and delivered a similar performance. If say, Paul Giamatti or even someone playing stronger against type like a Casey Affleck or Michael Stuhlbarg were in the titular role while delivering something along the same lines performance-wise I can't imagine it receiving the same amount of disregard given its creator’s prior credits and the caliber of its supporting cast. Of course, no matter the actor the movie still doesn't really know what to do with itself or its ideas and would be dinged for these faults, but to the same degree? That is the question here. Sandler has now become a victim of nostalgia in that he has thrived for so long his newer output will never match up to the fondness his core audience felt during the days of “Happy Gilmore,” “Billy Madison” and at this point, even “Mr. Deeds.” I think anyone might recognize that much of these movies aren't very good, but there are memories attached to them, from the stage of life when we saw them that make our affection for them greater. In seeing Sandler grow older and still participating in films with much the same tone as those from nearly 20 years ago inherently feels more depressing than anything else. I get it and I get why “The Cobbler” has received unanimously bad reviews, but just when Sandler was trying to accept his criticisms and grow up a little he is knocked right back down. Be careful what you wish for.
One might argue that no matter the caliber of the movie or status of whether it was produced independently or by a studio all matters very little when it comes down to the pure quality of the picture, but that wouldn't be completely true. Critics and movie-goers in general give certain films passes if it stars someone they tend to like or was made by someone who made another movie they really enjoyed thus setting certain expectations for their next one. With Sandler though, he has conditioned us to expect the worst. Let it be made clear that I don't think Sandler is in the clear for what has become associated with his name, but instead the point is that he seems forever straddled with that reputation of bringing a project down rather than ever being able to redeem himself. Everyone loves an underdog story though, right? I imagine Sandler might one day get his day in court, but in order to do that he'll have to try and do more than simply picking projects he thinks will be good based on there credentials, but actually take on good projects because he read them and is invested in them.
Giving an up-and-coming filmmaker with an interesting vision worked for the weird kind of renaissance Bill Murray had, maybe something similar would work for Sandler were he willing to go out on such a limb. The real question though is if he cares enough about the art of it all to even go to such depths. Would he dare alter his routine and give up some of the freedom he has gained from running his Happy Madison production company? As of right now it doesn't seem as if he has any interest in doing so as he struck a rich deal with Netflix to produce more of what he's known for with his group of friends and I doubt the dead on arrival reactions to his two "serious" attempts last year will aid his decision to keep trying. I'm not saying critics should give Sandler's more dramatic efforts higher scores so as to provoke more eclectic work from the actor, but I am saying that like we do when we give a movie a higher grade than it might deserve because it features someone we like that we do the same on the other end of the spectrum and take some of the pre-determined vitriol out of the equation simply because we believe Adam Sandler is such a stain. Base the critique on the actual product and not the personality influencing the product.
Ultimately, Sandler could of course try a little harder from time to time, but up until recently he'd been successfully making hits for 15 years, so why fix what isn't broken? The easy answer is artistic integrity, but I guarantee Sandler's response to that would be there is no such thing left in Hollywood. The bad news for Sandler now is that his formula IS broken. If Sandler is anything, though, he is a smart businessman and has become such his own brand he's separated himself from the remainder of the cinematic landscape. What he does with such power is up to him and what he truly desires his legacy to be. Let's just hope he realizes before it's too late that a string of ‘Jack & Jill’'s is not what he should want to see in his collective filmography when he's 80.