Touted as the first feature-length adaptation of comic writer David Sedaris’ work, Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s “C.O.G” arrived at the Sundance Film Festival with plenty of hype generated by fans of the original. A short story from the author’s anthology “Naked,” it’s the kind of low key, reflective story that opens up well to the written word: The plot, fairly thin and random, comes secondary to the internal journey of the main character. But movies rely on images, sounds and real experience that don’t necessarily imitate the written word. Some reviews of “C.O.G” have singled out the way that Alvarez (with his sophomore effort following the sleeper hit “Easier With Practice”) has nailed Sedaris’ tone. But does that make it a good movie?
The curious thing about “C.O.G” is that it doesn’t play like a straightforward adaptation. Much of the mood comes from ingredients that have nothing to do with story or dialogue. The offbeat misadventures of Yale grad David (an enjoyably awkward Jonathan Groff) as he wanders away from his parents to work on an apple farm in Oregon and briefly flirts with religion, relish a soft spoken, deadpan style that mimics David’s attitude. We first meet the young man on a bus ride to the farm in which he encounters one strangely disruptive customer after another: He’s confronted by a woman complaining about her love life, gets lectured by a psychopath and witnesses a couple getting it on, a staccato composition underscoring each moment. The humor comes from David’s increasingly befuddled stare at each of these events, implying that he sees the rest of the world as somehow wrong-headed or weird in contrast to his own standards. The ensuing movie shows how they unravel.
At the farm, David initially hopes that his ex Jennifer (Troian Bellisario) will join him, but when that doesn’t pan out, David winds up in the company of Mexican immigrant co-workers who don’t speak his language. Incapable of befriending them, he’s quickly relegated to an outsider and eventually shows his ugliest biases when he suspects that his stuff has been stolen (“This is America!” he shouts). Transferred to an indoor assembly line, he’s further mocked by disgruntled union workers (headed by an enjoyably foul-mouthed Dale Dickey) and only befriended by the suspicious Curly (Corey Stoll), a forklift operator with unexpected motives. When that doesn’t pan out, David eventually crashes with the proselytizing Jon (Denis O’Hare), a passive-aggressive born again Christian intent on taking David under his wing. Naturally, that doesn’t quite pan out either, although David seems uncertain whether he’s exploiting Jon’s hospitality or simply hanging around because he’s got nothing better to do. A shallow creation who alternately spouts ideology and loses his steam, Jon is something of a weak point in this otherwise well-assembled ensemble.
But “C.O.G” never settles down. The windy path of the narrative lends the feeling of drifting through David’s directionless life. Impressively carried by Groff’s wry performance, David’s disillusionment lends a representational quality to the movie. Although the story was published more than 15 years ago, the movie easily works as a generational statement on the experiences of soul-searching young people uncertain about where to invest their time and blinded by egomania.
There’s an inherent wittiness to this trajectory even though the laughs only arrive irregularly and the story peters out before regaining some ground with the understated finale. Tough to categorize, “C.O.G” is like a collage of Americana from the perspective of someone incapable of comprehending its value. On the apple farm, cinematographer Jas Shelton’s beautifully wide screen compositions of green valleys hint at a tranquil world just beyond David’s awareness. His cheap bids at finding salvation –religiously or otherwise — provide a contrast that’s both funny and sad, the qualities often attributed to Sedaris’ writing. That’s enough to make “C.O.G” more than just an adaptation; it’s a selling point for Sedaris’ talent as well.
Crticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Screen Media opens “C.O.G.” in limited release on Friday at the same time that hits VOD. Interest in Sedaris’ work and generally positive reviews may give it some traction over the weekend but it seems unlikely to gain much theatrical ground after that. However, the aforementioned hooks should play into its favor in its digital release.
A version of this review originally ran during the Sundance Film Festival.