His books are so good that I never really wondered what a David Sedaris movie would be like. Someone else did, though: director Kyle Patrick Alvarez. And the resulting film, C.O.G., based on a story from Naked, premiered at Sundance this week. It marks the first time Sedaris has licensed a film based on his work, though perhaps not the last. Sedaris has written directly for the screen at least once, with the 1995 short film Smoking, directed by Matthew Modine. (He also wrote for the mid-’90s Comedy Central Show Exit 57, which featured Stephen Colbert as well as Sedaris’ sister Amy.)
C.O.G. (which stands for “child of God”) concerns a pompous Yale graduate named David, who, seeking a change in life and furious at his parents, takes a job picking apples in Oregon, partly inspired by Steinbeck. David, roughly modeled on Sedaris himself, is played by a likable Jonathan Groff. Before the film I asked Sedaris if he had ever thought of playing himself or taking some other role.
“Are you kidding?” he answered. “That would be so wrong, when there are so many real actors out there. It would be like when they cast rap stars in movies. If I were a black actor I’d just be furious.” He was happy that they were able to find a gay actor to play him, though.
The character David, in the film, is dismissive and elitist. He considers the Bible “poorly written” and advises blue-collar workers angry at Japan that it’s “a lovely place.” After the film, Sedaris said it reminded him “of just how pretentious and horrible I was.” Much of the film is a comedy of manners as he encounters all manner of people not typically found in a Yale seminar room.
It’s a funny and enjoyable movie, though it falls something short of terrific. It may be a problem of expectations, for the film doesn’t quite have that unmistakable Sedaris tone. In his books, Sedaris reveals the petty vanities and anxieties that drive so much of human behavior with an honesty that is somehow deeply endearing. That kind of openness is harder to accomplish on screen, where we don’t get inside the characters’ heads in the same way. Alvarez decided against using voiceover; Sedaris gave the director complete freedom with his adaptation. “I never wanted him to feel like he had to check in with me,” Sedaris said. “I didn’t care who he cast, I didn’t care to read the script.”
It is surely unfair to compare the film to the books. Still, fans hoping to find the spirit of Sedaris on screen may have to keep waiting a little while longer.