October 13, 2019

‘The Cobbler’: Adam Sandler takes a walk in 1903 New York

Some three years ago, film director-writer-actor Thomas McCarthy was sitting at his desk, in his office located on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, playing with ideas for a movie, when the proverb about walking in another man’s shoes popped into his head.

What would happen, he wondered, if by literally walking in another man’s shoes, you actually turned into that man’s double.

McCarthy (director of “The Visitor,” “The Station Agent”) had other commitments at the time, but over the next two years, the project, which eventually became “The Cobbler,” gradually “moved to the front burner.”

In an interview, McCarthy said he had been long fascinated by the area’s small shops, many established by Jewish immigrants in the early 1900s. In particular, he was taken by an old shoe-repair shop at the foot of his office building.

He discussed the idea with a Jewish colleague, Paul Sado, who protested jocularly about returning to the Lower East Side, which his forebears had struggled for generations to escape, but ultimately he agreed to co-write the script with McCarthy.

Building literally on the “walk in another’s shoes” metaphor, it seemed natural to make the central protagonist a cobbler plying his trade in an East Side store established by his great-grandfather.

McCarthy’s first choice for the leading man — a shoe repairer named Max Simkin — was Adam Sandler.

“I saw something in Adam that I loved,” McCarthy said of Sandler, who is better known for his comedic, frequently over-the-top performances. Sandler, in turn, noting his last name translates to “cobbler” in Yiddish, accepted immediately.

The film opens on the Lower East Side in 1903, with a group of men in Chasidic garb, recruited by McCarthy from New York’s Yiddish theater and including the Simkin ancestor, complaining about hard economic times.

Flash forward to the present, when a swaggering Black thug (Cliff Smith, aka Method Man), brings in a pair of shoes for resoling, telling Max he needs the job done by that evening — or else.

Max sets to work, but his electric stitching machine burns out, and in desperation Max digs out an ancient dust-covered stitching machine, powered by a foot pedal.

When asked where the contraption came from, Max tells the story (in Yiddish) of a shoeless, hungry vagrant who knocked on the great-grandfather’s door a long time ago. The ancestral Simkin gives the man lodging, feeds him and gives him a pair of shoes. The next morning, the vagrant has disappeared, leaving behind the pedal-powered stitching machine.

Max now returns to his work, affixes new soles and, while waiting for the customer, slips his feet into the newly repaired shoes.

In a split second, the mild-mannered Jewish cobbler is transformed into a swaggering Black thug. Once Max gets over his initial shock, he realizes the potential of his newfound magical powers, which work only if the “other’s” shoe size is exactly 10 1/2.

Next, Max sees a man stepping out of a fancy, chauffeur-driven car. In his guise as the thug, Max follows the man, forces him to take off his shoes and, as his victim’s persona, goes to the garage and picks up the car.

In the next caper, a handsome hunk of a man (Dan Stevens) walks into Max’s shop for a resoling job. As luck would have it, the shoes are the right size. Max puts them on, walks into a bar and is immediately picked up by a gorgeous blonde, who invites him to drop by her apartment later.

Max arrives to find the woman nude in the shower, only partially covered by a curtain, and ready for action. Max hastily tries to take off his pants but quickly realizes that he can only do so if his takes off his shoes — which will cause him to revert instantly to his original nebbish self — so he flees the apartment.

It’s one of the few outright guffaw scenes in the film, whose subplot pits greedy developers against the neighborhood’s old residents, and which boasts some impressive names.

Among them are Steve Buscemi as Max’s neighboring barber, Dustin Hoffman in a short stint as Max’s father, and Ellen Barkin as a nasty slumlord.

But it’s Sandler, frequently a favorite punching bag of movie critics, who carries the film. Here, he essays a serious, at times agonizing, role, and is praised by McCarthy as “a terrific collaborator and very hard worker, though he makes it look easy.”

Despite such efforts, the film has one notable weakness. Given the motif, one would expect the film to explore in more depth how one character can change his view of another by further understanding his or her background, problems and motives. Instead, the film settles for focusing on the shock effect of simple physical duplication.

“The Cobbler” opens March 13 at the Sundance Sunset Theater in West Hollywood and Laemmle’s Playhouse 7 in Pasadena.