Length: 88 minutes
Release Date: September 20, 2013
Directed by: Kyle Patrick Alvarez
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Stars: 2.5 out of 5
On paper, David Sedaris is a truly funny guy. On the radio, he is uproarious. However, “C.O.G.” proves that film might be the comedian’s Achilles’ heel. The movie is the first screen adaptation of Sedaris’ writing. With so many expectations riding on it, perhaps it’s no wonder that the comedy falls a little flat sometimes. Nonetheless, “C.O.G.” is a slyly entertaining tribute to the memoirist’s comedic talent. In addition, director Kyle Patrick Alvarez takes the subject matter and makes it his own. The result is a movie that both respects and slightly transcends its source material.
The plot draws its inspiration from an autobiographical piece of the same name in a 1997 collection of Sedaris’ essays. Young David (Jonathan Groff) is a Yale student seeking the deeper meaning of life. Though he possesses a sharp wit and an enviable education, David wants to truly experience the world and get his hands dirty. With this goal in mind, David boards a bus and heads into the Pacific Northwest. Here, he hopes to find spiritual fulfillment by working on an apple farm over the summer. He also plans to gain some source material and emotional resonance for his future writing career.
Although he apparently expects to be a hit with his honest, unpretentious fellow workers, David soon finds that the other farm employees refuse to fit his expectations of salt-of-the-earth people. Instead, they have their own worries and problems. One of their problems is David, who makes no effort to hide his arrogance and the fact that he comes from a much different world. To these workers, David is not the poetic, interesting figure he thinks he is. He’s just another guy making their jobs that much harder and their long days that much more irritating.
Eventually, the fish out of water starts to find some allies. One of David’s new friends is Curly (Corey Stoll), a forklift operator. While Curly initially seems like a kindred spirit, their friendship takes some unexpected twists and turns. A little further down the road, David meets Jon (Denis O’Hare), a war vet who now spends his time discussing Christianity with anyone who will listen. Though Jon seems an unlikely mentor for a cynical soul like David, the street preacher ends up taking the young man under his wing. By this time, David’s cocky assurance is starting to crumble a little. He may be succeeding at finding himself, but the self he found is not who he expected.
The protagonist’s emotional journey is the bright spot of the movie. Funny and dark by turns, the plot captures Sedaris’ signature poignancy. Initially, David treats the working class world like a tourist spot, a landscape he can enter and leave at will. He treats self-actualization like a souvenir he might purchase at the end of a vacation. Alvarez occasionally struggles when it comes to portraying David’s relationship to the world around him. While the film highlights David’s pretentiousness and cluelessness, it also rewards his snotty behavior. The other characters in the film can too often become flat stereotypes, such as the over-zealous “Jesus freak” on the bus. When David tells the man the Bible is “poorly written,” it’s hard to say whether this is supposed to be a witty comeback or a moment where the audience realizes how cold-hearted David can be.
The fact that David is likeable is probably more due to Groff’s skills as an actor than Alvarez’s treatment of the source material. It may also be due to the lingering spirit of David Sedaris himself. The character of David chooses “Samuel” as a pseudonym, but it’s difficult to forget that he’s a thinly fictionalized version of young Sedaris. Although Sedaris can be acerbic to the point of cruelty, he’s also endearingly wry and self-deprecating. Between Sedaris’ lovable wit and Groff’s youthful, unassuming ambiance, David ends up being a surprisingly sympathetic protagonist.
The big question is whether “C.O.G.” is more likely to appeal to existing Sedaris fans or to audience members who are unfamiliar with the writer. Fans of Sedaris already have a feel for his brand of humor and know what they’re getting into. At the same time, Alvarez departs from the spirit of Sedaris’ written work and adds his own flourishes. High expectations might lead to some disappointment. Audience members who go in with a blank slate are perhaps even more likely to enjoy the film’s unique brand of humor. Ultimately, though, both old fans and new will find a lot to love in this wry, heartbreaking, and sweetly cynical movie.
Watch trailer here!