The first film adaptation of a David Sedaris work—in this case, a short story from his 1997 anthology Naked—C.O.G. proves a largely faithful, if slightly more profane, look at one young man’s simultaneously ridiculous and rending odyssey of self-discovery. Jonathan Groff assumes the Sedaris-proxy role of David, a Yale yuppie first introduced suffering among a gaggle of lunatics on a bus headed to Oregon. Once there, David plans to work at an apple farm run by Hobbs (Dean Stockwell) as a means of impressing a girl who, inspired by The Grapes of Wrath, wants to see “how the other half lives.” If that motivation sounds condescending, it’s part and parcel of a worldview based on looking down upon others, though David’s plans are upset when the woman abandons him for another guy, leaving him to fend for himself amid migrant Mexican workers with whom he can’t communicate, and who soon reject him for being an outsider.
He is an outsider, in fact, and from the outset, C.O.G. refuses to let David off the hook for being a tourist driven by patronizing curiosity and selfishness. That David chooses to go by the name “Samuel” during this adventure furthers his own pretentiousness, which is matched by a disdain for everyone not like himself: uneducated foreigners, religious types, working stiffs. However, despite his barely concealed contempt, David is not a wholly unlikeable figure, thanks in large part to Groff, who embodies his protagonist with an impolite arrogance (e.g. expounding to a group of assembly-line employees about the greatness of his year studying in Japan) that’s tinged with confused vulnerability.
Writer-director Kyle Patrick Alvarez (Easier With Practice) casts David’s journey as a misguided attempt to confront, and come to grips with, not only the many things in the world different than himself, but his own identity, which is also defined by a denial of his homosexuality. That comes to the fore via his relationship with apple-plant employee Curly (Corey Stoll), whose initially sweet come-ons turn far scarier when, back at his place, he reveals his “surprise” to David: a three-tiered wall shelf full of dildos. That might sound like a gag designed for mockery, yet C.O.G.’s empathetic attentiveness to David’s internal turmoil instead cannily positions the moment as a manifestation of its character’s fears over his own desires.
But David’s slumming-it odyssey naturally comes with some perils, including Jon (a fantastic Denis O’Hare), a born-again Christian whose street-corner pamphlets give the film its title, and who takes David in and teaches him both the ways of the Lord and how to sculpt jade. Scored to clapping sounds that accentuate David’s anxious condition, and bolstered by beautiful cinematographic framing that expresses his alienation, the film strikes a fine balance between hilarity and heartbreak. If the intolerance of the devout is a final target of C.O.G., its censure is complicated by portraits of individuals as inherently fallible and flawed, and driven to extreme measures by understandable, if nonetheless screwed-up, need.