Although many had begged, bestselling writer David Sedaris (Naked, Me Talk Pretty One Day) had never signed over the film rights of any of his humorous essays, fearful Hollywood would plaster over everything that made them personal and funny. But Miami native Kyle Patrick Alvarez, who had previously directed only one movie (Easier with Practice), won Sedaris’ trust by vowing not to rely on voiceover narration or one-liners or cheap gags.
The result, C.O.G., an adaptation of one of the stories collected in Naked, proves Sedaris’ instincts were right. Jonathan Groff (Glee) plays David, a Yale grad and Connecticut intellectual who, on the whim of a friend, decides to chuck all his modern-day clutter — cell phones, credit cards, laptop — and move to Oregon to work as an apple picker. “I wanna change the pace a little bit, get my hands dirty,” David says on the comical cross-country bus ride that opens the film.
But his first day on the job, working alongside Mexican immigrants who don’t speak English and lorded over by a watchful boss (Dean Stockwell) who has zero tolerance for slack, David realizes he may have made a mistake. “I thought this would be easier,” he says, unable to make a connection with any of the other workers on the sprawling farm. Instead, he entertains himself with his own musings on rural life (“Do cows look forward to anything? They must be so bored.”)
One day, while running an errand in town, David encounters a sidewalk preacher (American Horror Story’s Denis O’Hare) handing out pamphlets titled C.O.G. “Capable of genocide?” guesses the smart-ass David, who is an atheist. David’s wry, sometimes arrogant wit is lost on this modest, religious community of working-class people (when he tells his co-workers he’s fluent in Japanese, they ask him “Why?”) But the fish-out-of-water humor subtly fades into the background after David meets a factory worker (Corey Stoll) who responds to his view of the world and invites him to his home for Thanksgiving dinner.
Alvarez shot C.O.G. in beautiful widescreen, initially using the expansive apple fields and rural setting to accentuate David’s loneliness. But the framings become tighter and the camera moves in closer after David leaves the farm and starts to help the street preacher make wall clocks out of chunks of jade, which the man intends to sell at an upcoming arts fair and make a fortune.
And David, who is estranged from his mother and searching for meaning, starts to consider religion, even though he had previously dismissed the Bible for being “poorly written.” Groff’s terrific performance, which channels the quirks and peculiarities of Sedaris’ prose, gradually turns David from a charming scamp who uses irony to insulate himself from the world to a vulnerable young man in the throes of exploring his sexuality and fearful of what he may discover. Alvarez has a unique directorial touch, subtle and inviting but incredibly focused and precise. There are a few stretches in C.O.G. where the movie feels like it’s dawdling, much like David. But the wonderfully sad, exhilarating ending proves this filmmaker knew exactly where he was headed the entire time.
Cast: Jonathan Groff, Denis O’Hare, Dean Stockwell, Corey Stoll.
Writer-director: Kyle Patrick Alvarez. Based on the story by David Sedaris.
Producers: Kyle Patrick Alvarez, Cookie Carosella, Stephen Nesmeth.
A Screen Media Films release. Running time: 89 minutes. Vulgar language, sexual situations, strong adult themes. Opens Friday Sept. 20 in Miami-Dade only: O Cinema Wynwood.