‘The Cobbler’
Director:
Thomas McCarthy
Stars: Adam Sandler, Method Man
Rating: R
1 Globe (out of 5)

Every now and then Adam Sandler slips away from his frattish cottage industry of lazy jokes made with his friends and films clearly shot while he’s on vacation to do something more challenging, or at least more noble. And yet “The Cobbler,” the latest indie trifle by Thomas McCarthy (“The Station Agent,” “Win Win”), manages to be less respectable than at least a third of the Happy Madison output. Sandler’s not even terribly engaged, playing Max Simkin, a muttering, grouchy owner of a Lower East Side shoe repair shop that’s been in his family for generations. What wasn’t passed on was the fact that in their basement lies a magical machine that grants its user the ability to become other people simply by putting on their shoes. Soon this loner is doing just that, provided they share the same shoe size, which luckily most of his clients do.

There are many direction to take this, and — much like his semi-hero — McCarthy tries them all on. At first Max is selfish, even boorish: He becomes a rich guy to get a swanky meal, then changes his shoes in the bathroom and walks out without paying the check (and stiffing the waiter). He becomes the attractive guy (Dan Stevens) so he can bang his hot girlfriend — or, as it were, have a sudden convenient crisis of conscience at the last second. Eventually things take a maudlin turn, when he finds the shoes of his deceased father (Dustin Hoffman) and goes on a super creepy date with his mom (Lynn Cohen).

Going ersatz-Capraesque would have been preferable to the direction it eventually settles on, with Max getting involved with the criminal underworld. Just as sentimental ’80s comedies like “Three Men and a Baby” tended to have an inexplicable drug subplot, this has a crime bit that instead takes over the entire film. Method Man swings by as a scary gangster, and soon Max is transforming into him and manipulating events so as to get him out of the picture. This only leads to a bigger conspiracy involving gentrification and a massive, crooked real estate deal involving Ellen Barkin. 

Soon a little movie with a potentially nauseating high concept has turned into something sillier and more outsized than any dumb blockbuster. Sandler, to his credit, doesn’t volley for audience sympathy. Then again, it’s difficult, here, to tell the difference between a stubbornly remote Sandler performance and one that’s simply indifferent. Even as he becomes more aware of a world outside his tiny shop and Sheepshead Bay, Max remains distant and sometimes unpleasant, Sandler barely changing up his mealy-mouthed, grumbly performance. It’s as though a career of low ambitions cradled by high box office and a sprawling fanbase has finally eaten away at any true potential, making the carefully guarded anger that lets loose in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Punch-Drunk Love” and the cryptic maybe-self-hatred from Judd Apatow’s “Funny People” things of the past. If anyone needs to see the world outside of his own bubble, it’s him. Just not in this movie.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge