“Lost Soles, Found”
Because classical cinema was built upon close-ups of faces, the least likely facet of people to show up in the image is their feet. However, during the opening sequence of Strangers on a Train (1950), Alfred Hitchcock’s camera follows the footsteps of two men about to meet on the train and swap murder victims. Tom McCarthy’s new Adam Sandler vehicle, The Cobbler (2014) quotes this opening. A man declares, “to truly know a man, you must walk in his shoes.” We see people walking around the Lower East Side of Manhattan before entering a cobbler’s shop, run by Pinchas Simkin, who is given a magical stitcher which causes the man who fixes a shoe to be able to transform into the owner by putting his shoes on his own feet.
In the film’s most moving sequence, Pinchas’ grandson, Max (Adam Sandler) decides to use the machine to console his mother, Sarah (Lynn Cohen), suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. He fixes the shoes of his father, whom he thinks abandoned the family years ago. He has a romantic dinner date with his mother. Because of the transformed shoes, she of course sees him as Herschel, Max’s father (Dustin Hoffman). In a beautiful wordless scene, Herschel and Sarah sit and eat their dinner, dance, and then he puts his wife to bed. After she has fallen asleep, Dustin Hoffman playing Max looks into a mirror, and tenderly says goodbye to his father—“goodbye, pop”—something he never got the chance to do in real life. Then, Hoffman resumes playing Herschel, kindly responding, “goodbye, son.” In this fantasy scene, both father and son are collapsed onto one actor. The next morning, when Max goes to wake up his mother, he finds her dead, having passed away happily in her sleep.
Max decides to use the fixing of shoes to impersonate a gangster, and better his life by stealing. When all seems lost—Max is a better cobbler than he is a criminal—Max’s neighbor, Jimmy (Steve Buscemi) arrives to save the day. Jimmy confesses to Max that he is not the barber he’s thought he was for the past decades. Buscemi-as-Jimmy takes off his shoes; he suddenly transforms into Hoffman-as-Herschel. Max screams at him, furious at having been abandoned for so many years: “I was all alone!” But Herschel explains that while revealing himself “was too dangerous,” he was always close-by, next door in the barber’s shop, looking after and loving his son.
Herschel guides Max down to the basement to give his son his birthright, a huge room filled with shoes. Given the film’s attention to Jewish culture, set in an immigrant community, and assimilating Dustin Hoffman via the face of Steve Buscemi, the shock of the shoe room summons the permanent exhibit in the U.S. Holocaust Museum, 4,000 shoes on loan from Lublin, Poland that devastatingly expresses the scope of genocide via the sheer size of the pile of mundane items of footwear.
Herschel-as-Jimmy has been wearing his collection of shoes to redeem this history. He tells his son, “Customers. They help us to help others… It’s a privilege to walk in another man’s shoes, but it’s also a responsibility. You are a guardian of soles. You are the cobbler. This is your thing.” Max apologizes to his Dad as they enter Herschel’s car, which travels around New York City, now filled with a reunited father and son team, ready to use the magical stitcher together to make the world a better place.
The film puns a great deal about the relationship between the material (the soles of shoes) and the ephemeral (the souls of people). In doing so, it merely does what good cinema always does. Abstract ideals like the ethical superiority of the good Samaritan are conveyed through materiality, objects and actions. For all its saccharine, by-the-numbers Hollywood three-act structure, The Cobbler expresses our humanity in what unites us, even if that’s as simple as focusing on the shoes that we all wear to protect our feet. In so doing, the images of the soles of the shoes point to the world of the soul, that repository of our best traits. Cynical critics may pan The Cobbler for being ridiculous, that souls cannot be fixed in fifteen minutes as they are in Hollywood films. But the neon sign in the cobbler’s window—“New Soles. Fifteen minutes.”—might point to something more profound: sometimes the impact of a short experience will pay dividends for the remainder of a lifetime.