Kyle Patrick Alvarez will forever hold a unique spot among a select group of literature-loving cineastes in that he is the first writer/director to adapt a work by the beloved David Sedaris into a film. C.O.G. (and, yes, it would be a spoiler to reveal what it stands for) feels like a short story by Sedaris, for better and worse. Yes, the work has the wit of its creator intact but it also clearly was inspired by a small work as it doesn’t quite have enough meat on its bones to justify feature running time. The story also displays the episodic nature that often works in a short story or essay but not a screenplay. Strong performances throughout and a pair of truly stellar ones make the flaws of C.O.G. easier to overlook and it continues to bolster the reputation of Alvarez as a notable young filmmaker worth watching.
Samuel (Jonathan Groff) is a cocky, pretentious Yale student (the kind who reminds you where he goes to school by always wearing a Y-adorned sweater) who travels to farm country to work on an apple orchard to, essentially, mingle with the unwashed masses of whom he thinks he’s better. Samuel isn’t exactly an annoyance to the apple orchard manager (Dean Stockwell) but he takes too many breaks and seems aware that he’s only visiting this lower class and not there permanently. A few abrasive calls home indicate that Samuel isn’t just descending from his intellectual castle for fun but that he was recently in an undefined altercation with his family. He’s running away and trying to find himself.
Quickly promoted from picking apples to working in the sorting plant, Samuel crosses paths with a number of interesting personalities, including forklift operator and possible love interest Curly (Corey Stoll), abrasive line worker Debbie (Dale Dickey), and religion-spouting Jon (Denis O’Hare). As Samuel’s life seems to get more unfocused, the pronounced atheist ends up working with Jon (carving limestone into garish clocks to sell at a local fair) and C.O.G. becomes an interesting piece about the accepting (or unaccepting) nature of religion. It’s, ultimately, a piece that, to this viewer, makes the commonly-made point that no one is as they seem on the surface – not the Yale intellectual, not the friendly fork lift operator, and, certainly, not the Jesus-loving clock maker. At Yale or in farm country, we all hide our true faces.
It’s a familiar coming-of-age arc but Alvarez’s script for C.O.G. is cleverer than average for at least the first act. The opening scenes of Samuel’s journey are quite funny and I hoped for more insight than the rest of the film provided. As mentioned, C.O.G. develops a disappointingly episodic nature as Samuel flits from place to place and character to character, never finding the right rhythm to make the dramedy truly memorable.
Alvarez proves to be a deft director with performance as everyone in C.O.G. is quite good and Groff & O’Hare are even better than that degree of praise. Groff is a charismatic lead, adding depth to a character that may have come across as a surface-level prick in the wrong hands. I wouldn’t be surprised if he becomes a huge star eventually. He has the charisma and the talent to become one. And then there’s the great Denis O’Hare, so good on TV’s True Blood and American Horror Story, and doing the best work of his career here. Jon is a fascinatingly complex man, one who could have easily become a caricature of the short-tempered religious zealot but feels fully-rounded from scene one.
In the end, the first David Sedaris film is a hit but not a home run. What’s important is that C.O.G. does nothing at all to betray the fan base of its creator and delivers some dialogue along with two of the best performances of Sundance 2013. It may be a good-not-great movie but it allows one to eagerly anticipate future Sedaris films and future work from Alvarez and Groff. Like a lot of memorable Sundance films, it’s a sign of potential greatness to come.