Whether or not I was always such an acerbic, sardonic little twerp is up to my friends to determine, but I know that I discovered the work of David Sedaris the year before I entered high school. It was kind of timely, in a way, as it would certainly inform my worldview during high school. iTunes was having an audiobook sale and his collection of essays Me Talk Pretty One Day caught my eye, so I bought it and never looked back. For a while, I wrote my own essays, shamelessly aping his style of humor, but like many imitators of Sedaris, they usually lacked the grasp on humanity he inexplicably had. Some call it smarm, but I think it’s merely fascinating introspection. I think it would be slightly disingenuous to call Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s adaptation of Sedaris’s short story C.O.G. (collected in Naked) “hackneyed”, but, as I mentioned before, the critical thing it lacks is that humanity.
Just prior to viewing the film, I read the short story, which was probably a bad idea, since trying to divorce myself from the two works and treat the film as objectively possible is sort of difficult. So, I shall divide this review in two sections: as adaptation and as objective film. Regardless, C.O.G. sees a young David (Jonathan Groff) on a kind of mental road trip, attempting to live the life Steinbeck suggests in The Grapes of Wrath, but not really getting it. Too self-absorbed and wincing from the pain of being kicked out, his stint as apple picker leads him elsewhere, and down the road to, let’s say it together, self-discovery.
Jonathan Groff always seems to look smarmy in whatever he’s in, and usually it suits the role he’s playing, whether it’s a competitive son of a gun on Glee or a randy teenager in Germany in Spring Awakening. It works, usually, because there’s a hint of sincerity and enthusiasm. That, however, seems to have disappeared in C.O.G., where, even when he smiles, he’s wearing a Bitchy Resting Face. It may not necessarily be his fault, though. David Sedaris, the character in the essays, is judgmental and kind of petty and kind of self-indulgent. But that ends up being checked and balanced by his own ability to mock those flaws and dissect them in context of the event and in relation to his life, and the lives of others, as a whole. Without that internal monologue, David, the character in the film, just looks, and sounds, like an asshole. He suffers the same problems, though probably not to the same fatal degree, as Chris Colfer in Struck by Lightning: snappy, sardonic, smug. It’s hard to identify and sympathize with someone like that, and while avoiding the use of cliché voice over, it’s up to the actor to convey everything that’s going on in the character’s head. Groff attempts to do this, but it’s not entirely successful. There isn’t as much of a range of emotion or thought that one feels here, so the heavy duty work seems almost wasted. There are moments when Groff certainly does a good job, his line delivery in particular being rather good, but for better or worse, it’s not the character from the essay. It’s someone else who, despite trying to fill in certain spots with a semblance of a backstory, is not totally worthy of our sympathy.
If Sedaris’s essays are primarily shaped by his world view, however anecdotal they are in their surface nature, it means that world building would thusly be kind of important in the film. The texture needs to be lifelike and identifiable, both in terms of the setting and the characters. And yet, here, Alvarez goes very light on that. It doesn’t feel like the dark world that Sedaris sees, nor does it feel like David is the lone Cynic in a world full of happy-go-lucky folks. Even its brash attempt to take its message and contort it to something even more heavy handed is irksome and unsuccessful.
To be honest, “C.O.G” is not one of Sedaris’s best essays by any means. It kind of meanders and plays with various ideas of how to know oneself and being judgmental and religion and hypocrisy, etc. But it does not take a particularly solid stance on any of these ideas, nor does it deconstruct them or their emotional impact as well as a majority of his other, shorter essays (this one clocking in at over 50 pages). Alvarez takes this fairly unfocused essay (as far as Sedaris’s work goes) and… makes an unfocused film. Thematically, the desire to make it a cynical “coming of age” film, again, sort of peters out. It roams around some of the ideas in the original essay, but without the benefit of an internal monologue. Its ideas about religion, thus, seem shockingly half-baked considering the amount of material that Alvarez could have used. Wrestling with sexuality also takes a backseat in a weird way; sexuality is addressed, but wrestling with it is not. There seems to be no actual conflict, just scenes of people acting heteronormative. Alvarez sadly just dances around a lot of ideas with no real conclusion, except the heavy handedness of hypocrisy.
For all of the imperfections and roughness of “C.O.G.”, there is, at least, heart and warmth. This is fairly early in Sedaris’s career, and yet he gives the reader access to what he’s thinking and how he’s feeling, a complete vulnerability. That is why that story gets away with being serviceable. The film, on the other hand, does not contain these aspects and therefore does not get away with being serviceable. It seems almost rotten beneath the skin, such as with David’s encounters with Curly (Corey Stoll), scenes which plays out depressingly, rather than comically. It feels colder and even more cynical than one would expect.
C.O.G. is as tone deaf as it is thematically unfocused. Unsure of whether it wants to be a comedy or drama, it settles for something like the tone of a dark mystery of the dialogue of a slight sarcastic dramedy. If the ugly, dark green color palette is supposed to be the manifestation of David’s cynical nature, then it does not completely cohere with the fact that the people around him aren’t portrayed as total morons. We know he thinks they’re philistines who “don’t have any working knowledge of any major Italian directors”, but they themselves reveal nothing. The dialogue is more often than not taken straight from the story, and it seems to be much morbid and ugly than reading it. Much of the dialogue loses its luster and isn’t funny, with some of it, particularly from Denis O’Hare’s Jon, sounding fairly menacing.
Yet there’s a desire to retain a certain amount of indie quirk, probably better suited to mumblecore. The score, which features music heavy on percussion by Steve Reich and Edward Smith, feels methodical, quaint, and sinister. It’s very reminiscent of the score by Keegan DeWitt for Aaron Katz’s mumblecore mystery Cold Weather. It doesn’t seem to fit what’s actually going on in the film.
The cinematography reminds me of a lot of art films that I find sort of annoying. Not because they fall into that category of “art film”, but because some shots within those films seem purely unnecessary and give very little, if any, insight into the protagonist. The biggest one for me is the “camera shakily trailing the protagonist from behind”. It seems that that shot method has become deeply over saturated to me lately, and, as much of a journey film as this is, that shot does nothing more to tell me what is going on.
Mostly, I would say that I am disappointed. David Sedaris has, for a while, deliberately avoided allowing people to make films out of his stories. He mentions in “Repeat After Me” (from Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim) that a Chinese director had optioned his previous book, Me Talk Pretty One Day. (That director was Wayne Wang, who had adapted Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club to the screen in 1993.) He realized that there was the great possibility that he and his family would be portrayed as not very good people. It’s a stunning essay, one that’s beautifully lucid, thoughtful, and, of course, hilarious. These qualities are devoid in C.O.G., a film that’s strangely aggressive, unfunny, and dark. There’s something in Sedaris’s work that embraces you and envelops you, but the film makes on uncomfortable and pushes you away. Groff does what he can, but the character he plays is better left to the page. It’s not a very good adaptation and it’s not a very good film. The difference between “David” and Sedaris is the dame difference between smarmy cynicism and sardonic introspection: the latter has heart and warmth.