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by Eric Kohn
September 19, 2013 3:38 PM
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Review: Does the David Sedaris Adaptation 'C.O.G' Work If You Don't Know the Source Material?

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.
The windy path of the narrative lends the feeling of drifting through David's directionless life.

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.

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2 Comments

  • A Long Time David Sedaris Fan | October 12, 2013 11:25 PMReply

    I have been a devoted David Sedaris fan for over 20 years. He is simply one of the best authors in the world, and every chapter from "Naked" always leaves me aching with side-splitting laughter.

    But I just watched this movie, and it was a HUGE HUGE HUGE disappointment!!!

    Somehow, the makers of this movie managed to take one of the most delightful comic journeys ever set to pen, and turn it into a dull, dreary, boring, and extremely SMARMY tragedy. It completely lacks any of the fun and mad-cap wackiness that is so characteristic of the actual story.

    I mean, it was a complete butchery!!

    Kohn states above that the Groff and Alvares offer a good representation of Sedaris's own style, and I would have to respectfully disagree in only the strongest of terms.

    The style of the character in the movie is not "delightful," nor "awkward." He brings in none of the charm and wit and HUMOR that are all so richly developed in the book.

    And like so much of modern cinema, this movie suffers from a desperate and shamefully obvious need to seem hip, and that pretense extends even into it's morbidly down and melancholy soundtrack. I mean, it sounds like Ingmar Bergman on a synthesizer... monotone, dull, sleepy, leaden,... NOTHING like Sedaris or his work.

    And no, Alvarez has NOT "nailed" Sedaris's tone.... FAR from it. If anyone thinks that, I cna only conclude that they really haven't read Sedaris.

    I mean, simply put, it totally zaps all the humor and social satire from the story. Neither Curly nor Jon are anywhere near as crazy or oddball as they are in the book. In fact, Curly is somewhat handsome and Jon is sympathetic. You don't get that premonition of creepiness that David always senses about Curly, as you do in the book. For example, he doesn't talk the bad and simple English that's so much a part of of his character in Sedaris's story. I find it interesting that the incident with the dog was missing, and that the scene with Jon's mom lacked the tacit violence in the real story.

    More over, the story that Sedaris wrote is meant to show a far-right, rigidly racist community, not the melting pot of kind diversity pictured in the film. The jokes in the book are about reactionary white rage... in fact, that's what "C.O.G" is all about! That is what Sedaris is lampooning. Trying to make this world look so much more idyllically diverse means that the actual jokes in the story (which are about reactionary white rage) don't work.

    As a Sedaris fan, I feel completely perplexed that anyone could make such a horrible mockery of his work, as this movie has. I hope they paid Sedaris well, because I honestly feel that the movie nearly slanders the actual story... yes, it's THAT bad!

    In any case, I would recommend the book over this sad and somber knock-off from it.

  • A Long Time David Sedaris Fan | October 13, 2013 12:47 AM

    I just need to add one more comment to my previous posting.

    When I say that written version of Sedaris's story, C.O.G., is "all about reactionary white rage," I want to emphasize that it is NOT glorifying that rage, but lampooning and exposing it for the bat-wing creepy crazy that it truly is. And Sedaris articulates that exposure in just the most delightfully loopy way.

    But this movie completely obliterates that satirical critique, muting not only David's voice, but also his insight and his talent in the process. In so doing, it does away with the actual HUMOR that is the essence of the story.

    It's a real shame, because I was so excited to see this movie when I first heard about it. But god, I am just SOOOOOO disappointed!

    If you want to see how this story should REALLY be told, try Sedaris's Book on Tape for "Naked." It is a laugh riot! And not only does it give you awesome readings straight from David, it includes Amy Sedaris (of "Strangers with Candy" fame) doing extra voices. THIS is how the story SHOULD be told.

    But nothing beats the actual book, "Naked." And if there is anything good to be said about this awful movie, it's that it's making me re-read the story just so i can actually enjoy it, and wash out the abominable mutilation which Alvarez has perpetrated on the work.