Saturday, December 21, 2013

Overlooked Gems #61: C.O.G.

Grade: 76/B+

It’s strange that no one tried to adapt David Sedaris for the screen before C.O.G., but then, the tone that makes Sedaris such a great writer and humorist – snarky but never smug, self-deprecating but still deeply personal – is hard to get right. It’s easy to see how C.O.G. could have stepped wrong into judging the oddballs that make up its supporting cast, but writer-director Kyle Patrick Alvarez nails it, making a film that’s both uncommonly sensitive and consistently funny.

Jonathan Groff (best known for the hit musical Spring Awakening and a stint on Glee) stars as Sedaris-surrogate David, a Yale student who adopts the name Samuel and goes to an apple farm in Oregon in order to impress a girl. Samuel’s friend ditches him, and he immediately finds himself out of place among the roughnecks and Mexican laborers (he speaks no Spanish). After catching the eye of a overly friendly forklift operator (Corey Stoll), atheist Samuel falls in with Jon (Denis O’Hare), a recovering alcoholic and devout Christian artist who takes him in as an apprentice as he prepares for the Oregon state fair by making state-shaped clocks out of jade.

What immediately separates C.O.G. from its Sundance brethren is how it simultaneously gets comic mileage out of Samuel’s pretensions while undercutting them. It’s fun to see him brush off an overly enthusiastic Christian on a bus trip, but it’s even funnier to see his blowhard tendencies mocked. A great exchange with Dean Stockwell’s apple farm owner:

“Do you speak a little Spanish?”
“No I don’t.”
“They didn’t teach you that at your college?”
“I studied Japanese!”
“…what the fuck for?”

Groff gives a very good performance as someone who spends much of the movie as a smug little shit but remains sympathetic nonetheless as someone who’s adrift, struggling to accept his homosexuality. The film is even better, however, when dealing with the people he encounters. Stoll, who’s made a name for himself playing brash men in Midnight in Paris and House of Cards, dials back his coarseness for someone who’s initially the only one sympathetic to Samuel. His clear romantic interest (lost on Samuel at first) becomes more aggressive, but the way the movie handles his loneliness offsets any potentially uncomfortable aspects.

The real highlight, however, is O’Hare as a character who could have been, in different, lesser films, either a reductive caricature of a religious fundamentalist or a glib mentor type. Instead, he’s one of the most complex characters of the year, someone who’s both giving and impatient, warm but with a real nasty side, an open wound of a character who defies expectation at every turn. It’s one of the best performances of the year in a film that shows real promise for Alvarez’s talents with actors and not judging some truly thorny characters. If only more people saw it.

This film is now available on Netflix Instant.

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