'C.O.G.' is a flat and confused adaptation of David Sedaris story

CorrespondentSeptember 19, 2013 

  • C.O.G.


    Cast: Jonathan Groff, Denis O’Hare, Corey Stoll

    Director: Kyle Patrick Alvarez

    Length: 1 hour, 28 minutes

    Rating: R (language and some sexual content)

The writing of David Sedaris is such a delicate thing. Surely one of America’s best and most artful humorists, Sedaris’ carefully crafted personal essays can be deeply melancholy and laugh-out-loud funny at the same time.

Sedaris, who grew up in Raleigh, is also a gifted performer, in his particularly circumscribed arena. His book tours – in which he reads passages from his stories – are major events that more closely resemble the theater tours of A-list stand-up comics. He does all his own audiobooks, too, and as his legion of fans can tell you, the idea of anyone else reading his stories seems impossible.

So the task of adapting Sedaris’ work to film is a tall order indeed, one that the author has firmly resisted up until now. I wish he’d kept resisting.

The flat and confused comedy-drama “C.O.G.” is based on an essay of the same name in Sedaris’ very funny book, “Naked.” As in the book, the film chronicles the adventures of a young man named David as he retreats from his own life by heading out West to work on an apple farm.

The film trumpets its tonal problems in the very first scene, in which David is stuck with a scary seatmate on his bus ride to Oregon. As the young woman next to him literally screams a shockingly profane monologue, David (played by the bland Jonathan Groff) simply sits in stunned silence.

In the book, this sequence is seriously messed up and really, really funny. In the film, it’s just messed up. By opting against voice-over narration, director Kyle Patrick Alvarez (“Easier With Practice”) makes a bold choice, but a bad one. Without the wry comic distance of Sedaris’ own internal monologues, the scene dies a violent death right in front of our eyes.

The good news is that the film has literally nowhere to go but up from here. David arrives at the apple farm and tries to fit in with the migrant workers, who immediately distrust his dilettante slumming approach to the post-graduate vacation.

There are some funny bits in these middle passages as David gets acquainted with a surly farm boss (Dean Stockwell), a cranky factory worker (Dale Dickey) and finally, a rageaholic Jesus freak with a doomed entrepreneurial plan (Denis O’Hare, the most interesting guy in the movie.)

David also has an alarming run-in with a flirtatious fellow worker named Curly (Corey Stoll), who eventually brings David back to his trailer for an evening of truly ill-advised seduction. This is the film’s second-worst scene and, not coincidentally, it has to do with ostensibly outrageous and uncomfortable sexual situations.

Director Alvarez clearly relishes putting his audience into squirm-inducing scenarios, but his intentions are way too transparent to be effective. The film seems to regard itself as delightfully impertinent, but it all comes off as terribly amateurish. It makes you squirm, all right.

If the sex toy seduction scene doesn’t turn you off, the subsequent attempted rape might. All of these episodes take place in Sedaris’ original story, and in prose they work on a very specific funny/scary frequency. There are ways to handle sequences like this in film as well, but director Alvarez apparently isn’t familiar with any of them.

It’s entirely possible that the heightened reality of Sedaris’ memoirs simply can’t be transposed to the screen. That delicate tone so masterfully sustained in the books becomes blank earnestness here. Our hero is a cipher; sometimes sweet, sometimes arrogant and only occasionally sympathetic. Those intriguing deep rhythms in the original story – David’s relationship with his family, his struggle with his homosexuality – are reduced to awkward set pieces.

As much as I disliked this movie, I have to give Alvarez credit for making a genuine effort. This may be bad art, but it’s still art and the filmmakers are aiming for something true. It may be that the experience of watching this film will be different if you haven’t read Sedaris. But I’ll never know since I can’t unread those stories.

I wish I could, because then I could have read them again instead of watching this thing.

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