Jonathan Groff has already been nominated for a Tony Award, had a guest stint on Glee and dated Zachary Quinto, but he didn’t hold a permanent spot on my radar until I saw his performance in the new film C.O.G., in which he plays acclaimed writer David Sedaris. While I thoroughly enjoyed the film in general, it was Groff’s performance that sold it for me. I have a newfound admiration for his talent – and his looks ain’t shabby either – and I can’t wait to see where his relatively new film career goes from here.
The film, which premiered at Sundance earlier this year, opens today in select cities and on Video On Demand. It’s the first film adaptation of David Sedaris’ work, and it takes its inspiration from his essay of the same name in the collection Naked. The plot centers on a young David moving from Connecticut to Oregon to work on an apple orchard. His cocky intellectualism clashes with the locals’ way of life, and when he’s taken in by a deeply religious man (the very talented Denis O’Hare), he finds his faith – or lack thereof – called into question. Having read some of Sedaris’ work (although not “C.O.G.”) and finding him utterly fascinating in interviews, I was excited to see how his signature wry humor and eccentric personality would translate on film. Writer-director Kyle Patrick Alvarez does a nice job capturing the delicate balance of wit and pathos I’ve found in Sedaris’ writing. That said, you don’t have to have read his essays or know anything about him to enjoy the basic themes of coming-of-age and tolerance that go along with this film.
Groff doesn’t do an impression of David Sedaris, and I think that’s a good thing. Too often when actors play real people they get hung up on capturing the person’s every tic and vocal pattern, and the real emotion of the performance gets lost. That said, Groff does a great job of developing his own version of David Sedaris as a character. He can deliver a sarcastic line or skeptical facial reaction flawlessly and hilariously, but he’s also incredibly raw and believable in the more dramatic scenes. He captures the character’s arrogance very well, but he adds just enough insecurity and awkwardness to make him relatable.
I was hooked from the opening scene, which, thanks to both the clever writing and Jonathan’s naturally funny performance, tells you exactly who this character is and makes you want to learn more. On a long bus ride, David (who later decides to change his name to Samuel, not Sam) endures his seatmate’s vulgar tirade about the father of her baby, struggles to find a comfortable sleeping position, rolls his eyes at a young couple in the throes of passion, brags about his Ivy League education to no avail, and tells a tattooed Christian that the Bible is “poorly written.” It’s hilarious and expository without being heavy-handed.
The film itself examines themes of self-discovery and religion (“C.O.G.” stands for “Child of God”), and the protagonist’s homosexuality lends itself to both those concepts in a subtle enough manner that it doesn’t become the total preachy focus of the story. The religious plot will keep you thinking and then leave you gutted after an abrupt and ambiguous ending. I think Groff himself summed it up really well in an interview with the New York Post, explaining that the film doesn’t have a clear-cut message about faith.
If somebody asked me why it’s called “Child of God,” I would say it’s definitely not answering any questions about religion, but I think that it brings up a lot of questions about religion. It’s about how when s - - t really hits the fan, sometimes people who have no beliefs find themselves trying to embrace a set of beliefs, and how fascinating that is. I think that it’s a movie that brings up questions about religion without answering any.
This kind of questions-without-answers way of storytelling might frustrate some people, but if you’re a moviegoer who likes to be challenged with thought-provoking issues and universal themes, I say see this movie. It’s hilarious, it’s heartfelt, it’s beautifully acted, and it proves Jonathan Groff is poised to be a breakout star. Considering he’s doing a voice for the new Disney movie Frozen and starring in an upcoming HBO comedy called Looking, I’d say that’ll happen very soon.
(Image: Focus Features)