David Sedaris is one of the most popular American humorists and writers out there today. And, finally, we have an adaptation of his work. The film is focused solely on the essay “C.O.G.” from his popular memoir Naked. It tracks Sedaris’ Kerouacian life on the road, escaping from his east coast life to pick apples in Oregon. But C.O.G. is not a particularly funny film, coming off as a hollow interpretation of Sedaris’ writing.
Of course, if you’re unfamiliar with the source material, you would hardly even know that the main character is based on Sedaris. From the beginning, we’re introduced to the character David (Jonathan Groff) who is going by the name Samuel, just one of the many affectations of this precocious young adult (and the film only obliquely implies his real name). He hides inside of his Yale sweater, flaunting his intelligence and education (he’s just finished grad school) which is far greater than that of the apple pickers and factory workers with whom he works. Yet, for all that, David is in a state of arrested development—a fact which becomes increasingly clear to him as he loses his way in Oregon.
The apple picking job is a holdover dream from his childhood with his friend Jennifer (Troian Bellisario), who refuses to join him on this adventure—she’s matured beyond these adolescent dreams. The apple picking leads him to an apple factory job where he befriends Curly (Corey Stoll). But that relationship quickly sours, and David seeks refuge with self-proclaimed C.O.G. Jon (Denis O’Hare). However, it seems that David’s personality is far too volatile for these kind—yet flawed—people of Oregon.
Director Kyle Patrick Alvarez (who wrote the screenplay) presents a lot of different story threads, discarding them as offhandedly as David switches jobs in the film. From the beginning, David makes a call to his mother and it’s clear they’re on bad terms. She tries to get in touch with him at various moments throughout the film, but nothing actually comes of it. She’s a phantom looming in the back of David’s mind, one of the main reasons he seems to be hiding in Oregon; but his issues with her are never addressed or resolved.
David is also battling with his with sexuality. He blatantly flirts with Curly, but when Curly tries to seduce him, David freaks out. David clearly has some sexual identity issues, but what those may be (or what they stem from) are avoided. To avoid dealing with that, he takes up religion.
Despite being an atheist, David buddies up with religious zealot Jon. They have a few religious debates while Jon teaches David stonecutting. As David is forced to attend church, he gets sucked into the Christian mindset, another facade to hide behind. Inevitably these facades come crashing down, and we get a teeny tiny glimpse into the real David.
Luckily, Jonathan Groff is solid as David. His boyish looks are on par for this adolescent adult. But beneath that, you can see Groff winking at the various affectations of David. He walks the line of likability, making you want to him to succeed while also wishing you could slap him across the face. It’s sad to see Groff penned in by this lackluster script, but it would be great to see him reprise the character of David in future Sedaris projects. Plus, he works well with Stoll and O’Hare, two more skilled actors who make this disappointing film almost bearable.
C.O.G. has a lighthearted attempt at humor, but is rarely funny. (The sole exception being the surprise in Curly’s room during his seduction of David.) And the overt religious tone of the film is somewhat off-putting, mostly because it feels like a storytelling crutch. But the biggest problem with the film is that it’s as wayward as David is. It feels like a mashup of anecdotes that ultimately goes nowhere. The film is a disappointing start for adaptations of Sedaris’ writing, but hopefully it will encourage better filmmaking from any future attempts.
"C.O.G." opens September 20, 2013 and is rated R. Drama. Written and directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez. Starring Corey Stoll, Denis OHare, Jonathan Groff.