Runs Fri., Sept. 20–Sun., Sept. 22 at SIFF Film Center. Rated R. 87 minutes.
The personal essays of David Sedaris are notoriously unverifiable. I think we’ve established that by now. His fame rests upon clever, vindictive rewritings of past humiliations and grievances. Yet those self-lacerating moments are true in spirit; it’s just how he looks back on them, polishes them for us chuckling readers of The New Yorker and his recent Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls that toes him over the line into fiction. C.O.G., adapted by director Kyle Patrick Alvarez from a story in Naked, casts the young, vulnerable David (Jonathan Groff) as an innocent yet mendacious young man who travels west to work on an Oregon apple farm “to get my hands dirty.” In fact, pay-phone calls home indicate, he’s escaping the judgment of his mother for being . . . well, that will have to wait. (We all know Sedaris is gay, but C.O.G. treats that like the big reveal it’s not.)
Alvarez is better with the texture than the uneven, episodic tone of his story. Certainly he doesn’t go easy on his unreliable, unlikable hero. David—who calls himself Samuel, because it sounds fancier—is petulant and petty, a snob who insists he studied Japanese at Yale. He’s also a sissy prone to gay panic when a kindly co-worker (Corey Stoll, forever Hemingway in Midnight in Paris) comes on to him. Put differently, he’s not yet a self-accepting gay man. Yet Alvarez wounds his hero with interesting thorns (Dean Stockwell, Denis O’Hare, etc.) and builds up scar tissue that toughens his hide.
Whether attempting to feed meat to cows or being forced to drag a propane tank for miles along a country road, David/Samuel has a gift for doing and saying the wrong thing. And for each faux pas he is punished, and then some, by the locals—who are not the yokels he first takes them to be. “Stop being so prideful,” says O’Hare’s itinerant street preacher Jon, who takes David/Samuel under his wing (though a charity case himself). If our hero seems a little old to be learning basic life skills on the road, he also acquires the humility to see his own faults. And accept them—because we’re all sinners in this world, whether you believe in God’s judgment or not. (Warning: This film uses clap-track audio segues that will drive you insane.)