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PARK CITY – After previously blocking all attempts to turn his best-selling works into films, David Sedaris would be justified if he chose to slam that rights door shut again after the curiously flat C.O.G., a fictionalized adaptation of an essay published in his 1997 collection, Naked. Despite enlisting the likable Jonathan Groff as the author’s stand-in, writer-director Kyle Patrick Alvarez has managed to turn America’s most self-deprecatingly autobiographical humorist into a cipher in a film that struggles to find a voice.
As adaptations go, it’s far less miscalculated than Ryan Murphy’s film of Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs, another obsessive personality whose writings provide an all-access pass to his personal foibles and familial dysfunction. But the suspicion arises that perhaps the distinctive brand of warts-and-all heightened reality in which memoirists such as Sedaris and Burroughs traffic resists translation from the page.
The strain is apparent from the outset in C.O.G. as grad student David (Groff) travels across the country by bus to Oregon with an unenviable assortment of seatmates. An irate pregnant black woman spews forth an outrageously obscene diatribe against her baby daddy, the couple in front get way too down and dirty for public transport, and a tattooed Jesus freak assures David that reading can’t compare to prison as a learning institution. Punctuating these interludes with percussive scoring that mimics handclaps, the film right off the bat tries too hard.
Hinting at but never digging into family friction or exactly what David is escaping from back East, he calls his mother to say he’s going off the radar and not to try contacting him.
Going by the name Samuel, he takes a job picking apples at an orchard owned by the amusingly crabby Hobbs (Dean Stockwell). When his best friend Jennifer (Troian Bellisario) bails on the plan to join him, he stays on amongst the friendly Mexican workers, albeit unable to communicate with them. But they turn resentful when he is transferred to a sorting job at the packing plant.
With his preppy good looks and acquiescent smile, Groff brings a nice sauntering manner to a role that’s mostly submerged in self-absorption. He alternates patronizing assessments of the oddball strangers he encounters — immigrants, factory workers, evangelical Christians, cows — with awkward efforts to reach out and establish friendships. But as a protagonist, he remains too much of a blank slate.
David clearly is gay and apparently in denial to some degree. But the opportunities to explore that are fudged. The situation grows more promising when Curly (Corey Stoll), a forklift driver at the apple plant, takes a flirtatious interest in him. But David bolts when Curly proudly displays his gallery of sex toys. The scene is played for comedy, but given the massive rubber phalluses mounted on the walls like moose heads, it’s distracting to wonder if Curly’s doddery mom, living down the hall, has ever been in her son’s bedroom.
With nowhere to go, David accepts an earlier offer of friendship from born-again Christian Jon (Denis O’Hare). A war veteran and recovering alcoholic skilled as a rock cutter, Jon anticipates making a killing at an upcoming craft fair with his jade wall clocks shaped like the map of Oregon. Taking David on as his apprentice, he also nudges him to accept Jesus and become a fellow C.O.G. (child of God).
While the conflict between religion and sexuality has ample potential for drama or caustic comedy, Alvarez’s script never develops teeth or a discernible point of view. It just continues sputtering along on low fuel.
Curly resurfaces to provide another scare that pushes David deeper into the closet, becoming a C.O.G. more out of gratitude and confusion than religious conviction. When Jon’s intolerance rears its ugly head, his hatred comes as no surprise given previous displays of his un-Christian rage disorder. But since Jon never seems a genuine friend, there’s no sense of disenchantment. And David’s inner life remains so remote that his consequent reckoning with himself comes with unearned emotions and glycerin tears.
Visually undistinguished despite some lovely locations, C.O.G. is a hard film to pin down. It’s not bad, but it’s ineffectual — shuffling from one semi-satirical vignette to the next and then veering into soul-searching territory while generating only mild engagement. Alvarez has assembled capable actors, with Stockwell and Stoll making the liveliest impressions. But there’s an unshakable sense that the protagonist has no pulse on the screen.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Cast: Jonathan Groff, Denis O’Hare, Corey Stoll, Dean Stockwell, Casey Wilson, Troian Bellisario, Dale Dickey, Eloy Mendez
Production companies: Forty Second Productions, Rhino Films
Director-screenwriter: Kyle Patrick Alvarez, based on the essay by David Sedaris
Producers: Cookie Carosella, Stephen Nemeth
Director of photography: Jas Shelton
Production designer: Gary Barbosa
Music: Steve Reich, Joe Berry
Costume designer: Julie Carnahan
Editor: Fernando Collins
Sales: UTA/Preferred Content
No rating, 89 minutes
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Jamie Lee Curtis
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