Here’s what should happen when someone tells you not to do something: You don’t do it. But when someone effectively enumerates the reasons for you not to do it — when you’re walked through every single way, say, a movie fails — the urge to do it only grows. That’s how some things get seen at film festivals. You don’t want to miss the best movies. You also don’t want to miss the worst. I heard The Cobbler was bad. In two days at Toronto, it had achieved the kind of odious renown that inspires people to shake their heads and wave both hands while wincing and leaning back from you. All you did was ask, “How’s The Cobbler?” But you may as well have shoved a spoonful of shit at them.
For 20 minutes, I didn’t understand what the fuss was about. Adam Sandler plays Max Simkin, a humble shoe repairman. He works alone in his family’s century-old shop on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. He signs the anti-gentrification petition of a perky activist named Carmen (Melonie Diaz). He makes small talk with the barber next door (Steve Buscemi). He makes the nightly trip to Sheepshead Bay, to the Brooklyn home he shares with his mother (Lynn Cohen). The upbeat tone matches the activist’s. One afternoon, a customer named Ludlow (Method Man) asks Max for a shine and drops off a pair of shoes for repair. He needs them by 6 p.m. — or else.
Max toils away, re-stitching Meth’s soles. When the machine breaks, he has to use his late grandfather’s antique, pedal-powered stitcher. Waiting for Ludlow to come get his shoes, Max decides to try them on. The camera pans up from the floor, and Max has turned into Ludlow. Other shoes he tries on don’t have the same effect. He pauses to consider this, then runs into the basement to re-sole a pair with the old machine. And voilà: Max is a woman. He’s an old man. He’s a corpse. This happens with such alacrity that you accept it as a fairy tale. I even thought, This is what people are talking about? Still, at that point, the movie is more whimsical than it is bad.
But then you notice how Max is choosing to wear the different pairs of shoes. When he skips out of an expensive meal, it’s as a black man. When he wants to scare a white businessman into giving him his loafers, he’s Ludlow. But when Max wants to follow the model who lives near the shop, he turns into her white English boyfriend (Dan Stevens). Only once or twice does the swapping of soles (oh boy) result in real wonder about what it’s like to occupy a different body from a foreign culture. Otherwise, it becomes a plot device for getting Max’s hands on Ludlow’s criminal earnings and helping Carmen stop a hard-ass real estate developer (Ellen Barkin) from ruining the Lower East Side.
You watch The Cobbler and wind up thinking, How did adults decide to make this? Like, how did Sandler sit in front of that first pair of shoes and not say, “Wait, just kidding! Cut!”? It’s not that The Cobbler couldn’t have worked. It’s that it is three or four movies — all from about 1986 to 1989 — happening simultaneously, and none of those works. There’s only one director who could possibly have made it all cohere, and that’s Michel Gondry, who already did magic and gentrification and racial identification with Be Kind Rewind (with Diaz).
The movie Thomas McCarthy has made plays up realism at the expense of reality. It doesn’t feel enough like a fable. The movie enjoys the obscenities and grit and the occasional impaling stiletto. The human dramedy of McCarthy’s Win Win and The Visitor really struggle to surface. I don’t know what this screenplay began life as — a children’s movie feels like a safe bet. That could have worked, too: an adventure in empathetic enchantment. There’s even a preface that adds a ply of Semitic magical realism and a plot thickener with Dustin Hoffman. But holy heaven, you just never know how anyone believes this movie was the right one to make. Whose idea was it to put Barkin in more gold than Run and DMC? Who could watch the revelations in the final 15 minutes with a straight face?
The Cobbler is too earnest to be a fiasco. It’s not smart enough to say something important. And it’s too confusing and confused to entertain. This is the thing about the shaking of the head and waving of hands that people have been doing when The Cobbler comes up: It doesn’t feel good to dislike it. A movie like this, in which not a single scene comes together, in which almost nothing makes you laugh or cry or think, reminds you that it’s truly a miracle when movies work at all.
Two years ago at this festival, I watched the members of Indonesia’s death squads reenact their crimes in Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing. They bragged about their body counts and detailed the garroting, disembowelment, and general torture of countrymen — sometimes neighbors — deemed Communists by the military-run government after a failed 1965 coup installed Major General Suharto as the nation’s leader. What was so alarming about that film was the difficult time Oppenheimer had getting these men to repent for crimes. His approach was empathy. The role play of the reenactments, complete with fake blood and gore, may have been done in the hope that something post-traumatic would kick in, some remorse or chagrin. That’s not quite what happened.
Oppenheimer’s project was an experiment in human nature. The men largely saw it as glorification. In their eyes, this American director was turning them into Dirty Harry and Rambo. The film managed a stray breakthrough, but ultimately it chilled your blood and broke your heart. What did they have to be sorry for? The hundreds and thousands of people they killed were bad Muslims. They were enemies of the military. Many of the killers and their enablers are still in power today, and Oppenheimer continues to search for contrition. The second of these movies, The Look of Silence, follows an Indonesian country ophthalmologist, Adi Rukun, as he visits the sadists who played a role in the grisly killing of his brother.
It’s a terrible, emotionally wearisome task that Rukun has set for himself. The movie films him viewing footage that Oppenheimer has of the killers boastfully recounting their murders, one of which involved Rukun’s brother Ramli. Often there’s a cut from the television set, which sits along with Rukun in an otherwise empty room, to his encounter with a former death squad member. Considering the nature of Rukun’s visits, the conversations are mostly civil. He asks the death squad member a mix of leading and pointed questions. He uses words like “murder” and “kill.” Occasionally, his eyes get wet. But he’s like a cloud that refuses to rain. The men sitting across from him accuse him of being political and stirring up the past, but you never sense the rising of a guilty pulse.
The film is made shrewdly. Each encounter with a killer (and allegedly unwitting members of his family) opens into some new emotional place for Rukun. He’s shown revealing a little more about his brother’s death, and every reaction is the same but different: If you know what’s good for you, you’ll leave this in the past. Rukun is an eye doctor who hopes to improve the sight of the morally blind. More than one set of a murderer’s eyes fills with water in what amounts to a betrayal of a long-towed party line. But for the most part, each visit ends in a form of denial.
What a combination of misery and uplift this movie is. It isn’t searching for legal justice (there’s none to be had). It simply presents one family’s disheartening example. Oppenheimer provides oblique cutaways to Rukun’s mother and very old, very demented father, who exists in different states of suffering. They will never stop missing their son. Those death-squad massacres received scant international attention. Even now, their perpetrators are still connected to or are themselves very much in power (the closing titles credit a stream of Indonesian crew members as “Anonymous”). Oppenheimer’s films are among the few reprisals these men will ever face.
Of course, it would be nice to say they have to face themselves (the living executioners are elderly now), but one wonders about that. Self-recrimination is inadequate. You can feel the hope running out of Oppenheimer’s project even as it gathers in its blood-boiling humanity. This is the stronger movie of the two. It doesn’t need the empathy exercise that The Act of Killing attempted. Asking these killers to walk in their victims’ shoes just leaves some of them eager to chop off another foot.