Based on an essay in “Naked,” David Sedaris‘ hugely popular collection of autobiographical short stories, “C.O.G.” is notable for being the very first film adaptation of the author’s work. Though he’d previously turned down all other offers to adapt his stories, the essayist was impressed by writer/director Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s pitch as well as his previous film “Easier With Practice” and decided to let him have a shot. Whether this adaptation is successful or not may depend on your familiarity with the source material. While some have found the film to be a bit of a letdown, as someone mostly unfamiliar with Sedaris’ writing, I found it to be a sharp and well-made, if a bit of an episodic dramedy. The film opens with Ivy League college grad David (Jonathan Groff) setting off across the country. As an aspiring writer, David assumes he must accumulate some kind of rugged life experiences and so he’s decided to spend the summer working on an apple orchard in Oregon (an idea perhaps foolishly borne out of reading “The Grapes Of Wrath”).
He even picks out a different name, Samuel (likely after author Samuel Beckett), but once he arrives in Oregon, his romantic notions of a hard day’s work come colliding with the reality of what that actually entails. (For starters, there are no reading breaks because you’re tired.) Crotchety orchard owner Hobbs (Dean Stockwell) agrees to take him on for the summer and soon Samuel’s pearly white sweater is covered in the dirt that comes from physical labor. In the many long days to follow he finds himself mostly keeping to himself as he has no way to communicate with his mostly Spanish-speaking co-workers. (He learned Japanese instead). After his best friend Jennifer (Troian Bellisario) bails on joining him, it becomes clear that Samuel is avoiding something other than his real name. At the end of the summer, he decides to stay on indefinitely, getting a job at the local factory that processes the apples. This turns out somehow to be even less glamorous than it sounds and winter in Oregon becomes especially lonely.
Though the hardened factory workers have taken to calling him “Einstein,” he finally meets someone he can connect to, a handsome forklift driver named Curly (Corey Stoll) who he strikes up a flirtation with. Though David’s/Samuel’s sexuality hadn’t been made explicit – it’s not clear if he is aware of his homosexuality at this point or if this is where his realization occurs – things move a little too quickly for him and he ends up skipping town where he meets up with war vet and born again Christian, Jon (Denis O’Hare).
As an atheist and pragmatist, Samuel doesn’t think Jon has much to offer him but becomes eventually becomes so worn down by his experiences that religion starts to appeal to him. Jon calls himself a C.O.G. (child of God) and his initially sunny disposition masks some serious anger issues which manifest themselves in outbursts of cruelty at anyone in his path. Jon acts as a mentor Samuel, taking him under his wing and teaching him “the only skill he has,” making very heavy Oregon shaped clocks out of slates of jade, but it becomes a matter of time before one of his outbursts will finally cast Samuel out on his own.
Though Groff is a veteran of the stage (he was nominated for a Tony for his performance in “Spring Awakening”) and small screen (“Glee”), this is the first time he’s been asked to carry a feature. Looking like a young Cary Elwes, Groff does a remarkable job leading the film and appears in virtually every scene, giving one of the finest performances I saw at Sundance this year. His character undergoes a subtle transformation over the course of the film. Initially he’s kind of a snot (though an extremely quick witted, unaware one), but as he’s broken down, his character goes to some pretty emotional places. After coming to greater attention recently with recurring roles on “American Horror Story,” “True Blood” and “The Good Wife,” character actor O’Hare is unsurprisingly great here as the wounded believer.
Though it begins as a droll comedy the score is made up of rhythmic handclaps and Samuel’s asides seem torn from Sedaris’ writing – things do take some dark turns as the story progresses. (One scene where Curly tracks down Samuel later in the film is particularly uncomfortable.) If adapted faithfully, these detours are unavoidable but they do make the film unexpectedly unpleasant for stretches of the third act. Due to the episodic nature of the story, it begins to feel a bit long despite being just 90 minutes and you can’t help but wonder if it might’ve have been more successful as the first three episodes of a new HBO series. As a long-form adaptation of Sedaris’ work, I have no doubt that writer/director Alvarez would be the right choice to shepherd the material, but as a standalone feature, it feels like there’s not quite enough there. Despite some good performances and sharp screenplay, “C.O.G.,” like its lead character, seems stuck in the space between. [B-]