(US - 2015)
MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN and Tom McCarthy's THE COBBLER. McCarthy's made some respected and acclaimed indie films, such as THE STATION AGENT (2003), THE VISITOR (2008), and WIN WIN (2011), and Sandler would seem to be in good hands with either director if he was seeking an indie-cred reinvention. But whatever mojo Reitman had circa UP IN THE AIR is gone, as MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN was a ridiculous CRASH knockoff that got laughed off the screen with its "Old Man Yells at Cloud" attitude about social media and modern technology and eventually opened in theaters to the tune of a $700,000 total gross while asking the tough questions like "What's with all the selfies and the texting and the porn and the jerking off?" THE COBBLER got an even more toxic response. Earnest and schmaltzy to a fault, it plays like an excessively sappy take on the kind of middling, klezmer-scored, high-concept trifle that Woody Allen might churn out to lighten the mood between dramas. Acquired by Image Entertainment and relegated to a few theaters and VOD, THE COBBLER grossed just $24,000 and is somehow worse than any of Sandler's phoned-in Happy Madison joints.
The dumb concept might've provided passable entertainment had McCarthy been able to settle on the right tone. Instead, he veers wildly from comedy to fantasy to drama, with Sandler doing his best to keep up as schlubby Max Simkin, a fourth-generation cobbler in a Lower East Side neighborhood that's struggling to hold off gentrification. Weighed down by Allen-esque Jewish neuroses, deserted by his father (Dustin Hoffman), and living with his dementia-addled mom (Lynn Cohen), Max wishes he'd made different choices in life but just plugs away in his mundane existence. That is, until he discovers an old stitching machine in the basement that enables him to literally walk in someone else's shoes: when he slips on shoes that have been repaired using the antique stitcher, he turns into the person who owns the shoes. At first, he uses his new trick to mess with Jimmy (Steve Buscemi), who owns the barber shop next door, but then he's dining-and-dashing by switching into another pair of shoes in the restaurant's men's room and trying to get in the shower with the hot girlfriend of local DJ Emiliano (THE GUEST's Dan Stevens), and while wearing the shoes of neighborhood gangster Leon (Method Man), he threateningly steals the shoes of another (Joey Slotnick) because he wants to get that guy's sports car out of the parking garage and speed throuogh the streets. There's probably a ton of ways that shoe-stealing scene, relying on Leon being a stereotypical thug, could've been subversive and funny, but McCarthy treats the joke the same way a regular Sandler director would and it lands with the expectedly uncomfortable thud. THE COBBLER gets hopelessly maudlin as Max slips on his dad's shoes to stage a reconciliation with his mom, but he soon decides to use it to stop gentrification in his neighborhood, with Leon in cahoots with a corrupt property developer (Ellen Barkin, who can play this kind of bitch-on-wheels character in her sleep) to run elderly holdout Mr. Solomon (Fritz Weaver) out of his building so they can tear it down. This all leads to a twist ending that, among other things, somehow turns THE COBBLER into a superhero origin story ("You are the Guardian of Soles. You are the Cobbler" is probably the single worst line of dialogue Hoffman's been forced to utter in his 50-year career). In his defense, Sandler really isn't the problem here, nor was he the issue with the overwrought MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN. It's almost like he's acting out by defiantly choosing the most terrible serious scripts he can find so people stop giving him so much shit about paid vacations like GROWN-UPS 2. (PG-13, 98 mins)
THE DEVIL'S VIOLINIST
(Germany/Austria - 2013; US release 2015)
PAPERHOUSE and 1992's CANDYMAN, Bernard Rose's freefall into Roland Joffe depths of irrelevance continues with the laughable Niccolo Paganini biopic THE DEVIL'S VIOLINIST. Rose directed 1994's well-regarded IMMORTAL BELOVED, anchored by a great Gary Oldman performance as Beethoven but here, he's saddled with violinist/PBS crossover sensation David Garrett as the maverick 19th century classical great Paganini. Garrett can obviously play but he can't act and as a result, there's a massive void in the center of the film that's impossible to fill. But really, Garrett is just one of many insurmountable problems with THE DEVIL'S VIOLINIST: Rose wisely offers his inexperienced lead some support with veteran professionals, almost of whom decided to bring their D-game. In the worst performance of his career, Jared Harris is Urbani, a vaguely demonic figure in a ludicrous top hat who has Paganini sign a contract in exchange for fame and fortune. Rose seemingly treats the metaphorical "deal with the devil" as historical fact, and it leads to all manner of self-destructive behavior on Paganini's part. Rose has no interest in exploring Paganini as a character and simply bulldozes through the exposition--in rapid-fire succession, Paganini goes from unknown violinist to superstar to father of a five-year-old boy to hopeless opium addict. That's all in the first 12 minutes. Then the kid disappears, and we see him again 100 or so minutes later, then five minutes after that, he's a decade older. Then Paganini is on opium again after no signs of drug abuse for 90% of the movie. At times, it seems like a long "Previously on..." recap for a TV series that doesn't exist.
Goaded by Urbani, Paganini treats everyone like dog shit, callously bankrupting the London benefactor (Christian McKay gives the only thing resembling a performance) who tries to help him expand his audience, breaks the heart of Charlotte, the benefactor's daughter (Andrea Deck), and demands financial compensation to play for the King of England. He takes the stage hours late like some 19th century Axl Rose, and is targeted by an ever-present group of religious protesters--led by the prudish and perpetually haranguing Primrose Blackstone (Olivia d'Abo)--that also functions as a Greek chorus for the plot. Everything about THE DEVIL'S VIOLINIST is wrong-headed: casting a violinist with no acting experience and a complete inability to correctly pronounce the name "Charlotte" instead of a real actor who could maybe learn to mimic the violin performance scenes; Harris playing Urbani with a Mephistophelian scowl more befitting a silent movie villain, and with a bizarre vocal affect that can best be described as "SLING BLADE starring Peter Lorre"; Joely Richardson as a rough, cigarillo-smoking journalist with Carrot Top's hair, getting catty with Charlotte over Paganini's attention; giving the great Helmut Berger prominent billing but nothing to do...I could go on. Boasting some nicely ornate interior production design, THE DEVIL'S VIOLINIST is otherwise appallingly bad and just more proof, along with the little-seen 2014 found-footage horror film SX_TAPE, that Rose just has no idea what he's doing anymore. He's made some accomplished films and a couple of his early ones could arguably be called great, but while he keeps busy, he's done nothing noteworthy since his 1997 version of ANNA KARENINA with Sophie Marceau. Rose is prolific but his consistently barely-released or completely unseen films fly so far under the radar that it's easy to forget he's even still around, let alone cranking out six movies in the last five years. In the end, THE DEVIL'S VIOLINIST, released on just ten screens in the US by Freestyle two years after flopping in Europe, seems like as much of vanity project for Garrett as Klaus Kinski's humbly-titled 1989 Paganini chronicle KINSKI PAGANINI. Garrett, also one of 26 credited producers, gets to show off his chops numerous times, his Paganini beds a slew of comely women, and his female fans are always shown fanning themselves as they mob him like he's One Direction, accompanied by sounds of Elvis and Beatlemania crowd shrieking. And in a bizarre onscreen credit worthy of infamously self-aggrandizing neoclassical metal Paganini disciple Yngwie Malmsteen, there's even a special acknowledgment from the producers thanking Garrett for his work on the film. Does that mean he's thanking himself for starring in a movie that he co-produced? Isn't that like a Malpaso production thanking Clint Eastwood for showing up? (R, 123 mins, also streaming on Netflix Instant)