Thursday, June 18, 2015

More bad movies by good directors

The second movie I watched in the past week for purely masochistic reasons was The Cobbler.

It was better than Accidental Love. But then again, the director of Accidental Love actually took his name off of it, which can't be said for this one.

I knew from the concept that the movie seemed ridiculous. The Cobbler stars Adam Sandler as a Brooklyn cobbler who discovers an old stitching machine in the basement of his shop, which was owned by his father. When a pair of shoes are stitched up with this machine, the person who wears them can temporarily transform, physically, into the owner of the shoes. So when Sandler for some reason tries on a pair of shoes he just stitched up for a gang banger, he discovers to his surprise that he turns into that gang banger -- appearance-wise -- for the period of time he's actually wearing the shoes.

Got it?

On the surface this sounds like some high concept comedy along the lines of what Sandler has made in the past, such as Click. However, learning who directed it, I realized it was likely to be far more of a misfire.

That's right, this film is directed by Thomas McCarthy, who I guess is now going by Tom McCarthy -- perhaps that's his version of David O. Russell calling himself Stephen Greene for Accidental Love. If that name doesn't ring a bell -- which wouldn't be entirely surprising, as it's a pretty generic name -- McCarthy is the critically acclaimed director of the features The Station Agent, The Visitor and Win Win. He originally made his name as an actor, appearing in the final season of The Wire among other projects, which also distinguishes him among today's field of working directors.

McCarthy is good at a lot of things -- I love both The Visitor and Win Win -- but I seriously doubted his ability to make a concept like The Cobbler work. Tom Shadyac, Dennis Dugan or Frank Coraci, maybe. McCarthy? No.

Indeed, it doesn't work, and indeed, I kind of knew that going in, as the film was basically dumped with little fanfare and had been greeted with howls by certain parts of the critical establishment. (Its Metascore is only 22.)

What I didn't know, and could never have guessed, was that it would be weirdly racist.

Just from watching it, I got that kind of itchy, icky feeling of racism, but couldn't quite put my finger on it. I was more focused on the truly odd concept, especially when this film has kind of the surface appearance of one of Sandler's recent dramatic turns -- an idea supported by the guy directing the movie, whose funniest movies have still been only seriocomic in tone.

But a viewer on Metacritic who awarded it a zero crystallized that ickiness I felt in his own brief review. So, with compliments to TheRealMcCoy, let me explain how weirdly racist this movie is.

Some spoilers to follow.

Sandler has exactly three black customers bring him shoes.

The first is the aforementioned criminal -- who I'm calling a gang banger in what may be my own possible bit of accidental profiling, but who may just be your garden variety criminal. He's played by Method Man, and though he's got a big smile on his face in this picture, that's a decidedly less typical moment. Machismo and intimidation are his more familiar modes, and it turns out he's into some high-level stuff, as well as some good old spousal abuse. When Sandler is in the guise of this character, Leon Ludlow, he comes across a scene where Leon's cohorts are torturing a guy who ripped them off, and also comes home to the wife or girlfriend who accuses him of beating her. This is not great stuff, but what they do with it is even worse. As Leon, Sandler displays mercy on the tortured turncoat -- who, problematically, is also white -- as well as apologizing to the beaten spouse. The unfortunate suggestion is that only this white cobbler can countermand the criminal and violent instincts of this black thug.

The second is the guy you would cast specifically if you are trying to balance the borderline (or not so borderline) racist portrayal of your primary antagonist. It's this guy, a character actor named Wayne Wilderson, who I have seen plenty before (among other things, he was "the convict" in that great episode of The Office where Michael Scott profiles this clean-cut guy based on the fact that he spent some time in prison). Just to show you how opposite this guy is to Leon Ludlow, the never-named character is listed as "Young Preppy Guy" on IMDB. So what do they actually choose to do with this character? They have him go eat an expensive meal at a restaurant, then go to the bathroom and change out of his shoes, so he emerges as Sandler and can slip right out without paying. That's right, even though they had a half-dozen characters they could have chosen from based on the shoes Sandler had already stitched, most of the others of which are white, they chose this black character to skip out on a check at a restaurant. It's Sandler's character doing it, of course, but he as a character -- and by extension, the movie -- has chosen to reinforce a pernicious stereotype.

The last character is an unambiguously saintly boy, seen here. He's Miles J. Harvey, and he's fat. The character always claims that he's not fat, that he's just big-boned, but nonetheless, our takeaway is that he has bulked up on McDonald's fast food as a result of being unable to control his appetite. And progressiveness wins again.

The only other black characters in the film are Leon's cohorts (though some of them are other races, if I recall correctly).

Taken in combination, it just looks bad. And more than that it looks clueless. It's not like the film is not conscious of potential drawbacks to the way it portrays blacks. Rather, it's conscious of that possibility, but then tries to address it in moronic ways that makes the problem worse.

But really, to get hung up on the fact that The Cobbler is sort of racist overlooks the bigger problem that it's just a bad movie.

Let's hope McCarthy gets himself figured out next time. Sandler, on the other hand, will probably never figure it out.

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