From the man who gave us the witheringly funny "SantaLand Diaries" comes a tale (originally in David Sedaris' book of essays "Naked") of the same man, thinly disguised, at another point in his artist-as-a-young-man journey, picking apples in rural Oregon and learning just how many hypocrites there are on the planet.
"I thought this would be easier — I figured you'd just pick them up off the ground when they fell," says David, reaching, precariously, for a high branch atop a ladder in an Oregon apple orchard in "C.O.G." This Ivy League-educated lost soul is slumming, working the land, ineptly, getting away from an unhappy and sadly judgmental home back east.
Adapted and directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez, the film begins with a bus ride from hell or thereabouts, with David (who renames himself "Samuel" while on the road) playing the aghast witness to all sorts of menacing characters in adjoining seats. That's Sedaris all over: the wry, beside-it-all observer of human folly and casual vindictiveness.
Jonathan Groff, a bit blandly, plays the Sedaris stand-in, out of the closet but barely. He's ditched by his best friend Jennifer (Troian Bellisario) before their plan to do the "Grapes of Wrath" thing begins. So he does it solo. The best of "C.O.G." develops the story's key relationship, that of David/Samuel and his unexpected artistic mentor, a fragile, hostile war veteran and fledgling sculptor played, wonderfully, by Denis O'Hare. He's an evangelist for the Lord, and sees in David someone who could use a savior.
Where that relationship goes won't surprise anyone accustomed to Sedaris' writing, or his monologues on "This American Life."
Modest and good-looking, the film starts as dark comedy and ends in pathos. Director Alvarez makes the Oregon scenery a character unto itself. Groff's character, meantime, remains a muted, multidirectionally condescending witness to his own story, which is the film's chief limitation. But O'Hare makes the most of every moment. And it's amusing to see Dean Stockwell turn up as the orchard's irascible owner, who wonders what this college kid is doing in his corner of the world.
"C.O.G."-- 2 1/2 stars
MPAA rating: R (for language and some sexual content)
Running time: 1:28
Opens: Friday at the Siskel Film Center