Though C.O.G., the first-ever film adaptation of one of David Sedaris’s works, is an autobiographical portrait of the famed humorist and essayist as a privileged, meek young man who experiences firsthand the intolerance of religion and the dehumanizing and desperate attributes of a working-class life, it could also be read as an articulation of the experiences of contemporary postgraduate life. The differences are seemingly unbridgeable between David (Jonathan Groff), a lofty graduate from Yale who’s traveled west to try his hand at agriculture, and the “salt of the earth,” as his gay, rapey co-worker (Corey Stoll) at an apple-packing factory sarcastically calls the miserable employees they work with. Establishing a genuine bond with them seems out of reach, even when David, after an opening scene that has him sneering at the people on his bus, gets off his high horse to try and get to know them.
Without the guiding narration of Sedaris’s essay, the film has us read David’s thoughts through Groff’s performance. While the actor certainly conveys David’s contempt and innocence, we don’t know in the film, for instance, that David “hates” Jon (Denis O’Hare), a hot-tempered salesman of religion and clocks shaped like the state of Oregon, and who David lives with until Jon lets him off on the side of the road because, among other complaints, Christians aren’t “faggots” like David. (The script’s dialogue, however, makes it clear that David despises religion, and in his funniest line, he says, in response to Jon’s attempt to proselytize him, that C.O.G., an acronym for Child of God, might stand for “capable of genocide.”) And while there may be humorous lines sprinkled throughout its running time, the film, from a combination of Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s flat scene construction and Oregon’s somber climate, feels heavy with an inconsolable air. In particular, its second half, with considerably less jokes and the tone shifting toward melancholic rumination, is somewhat of a slog; David finds himself whimpering through a series of challenges that drive him, in his biggest moment of desperation, to beg for help from God to get out of an undesired sexual encounter. I’m sure this scene could have also worked as comedy, but there’s something almost disturbing about the way it’s presented by Alvarez, a director who, based on his prior Easier with Practice, likes to explore territory that walks a line between creepy and risible.
C.O.G. works well as a study of the feelings—the disappointment, horror, and surprise—that a recent graduate can experience outside the ivory tower. But, as an adaptation of Sedaris’s short essay from his acclaimed 1997 compilation, Naked, it’s a letdown, as it doesn’t exude the pop of the author’s trademark humor. The film is even a step down from Alvarez’s first feature, which communicated more of its sympathetic main character’s thoughts and feelings and depicted modern-day isolation with more resonance.