Directed by: Sam Esmail
As noted by the movie’s protagonist (in one of his many undergrad philosophy monologues), paintings are unlike cinema in that they have no start middle or end. They just exist, divorced from time, and in them you see what you want to. Through a fractured and time-jumping narrative, writer/ director Sam Esmail’s determined debut feature is a noble attempt to recreate this sensation on film. Taking place over six years, inexplicably in a parallel universe, Comet certainly gets the visual element if its mission statement across. The presentation is crisp, shifting from a dreamlike French winter to the vast American country out a train window and deep into the celestial beauty of outer space. Yet this isn’t a landscape – it’s more a portrait of two people: Dell (Long) and Kimberly (Rossum) who meet then fall in and out of love over a period of 6 years.
Despite being positioned within a cosmic scale, Comet is very stripped back. In the opening scene Kimberly saves Dell from being crushed by an oncoming car, while on a date with his complete opposite. From there it’s almost all dialogue, and it almost all comes out of their mouths. The film only features five set pieces and it jumps between them, in a narrative style not dissimilar to the Don’t Look Now sex scene teased out across an hour and a half. These scenes include the rest of their first not-so-brief encounter, an argument in a tense Parisian hotel room before a wedding, an ill-fated phone call during an attempted long distance relationship, a train journey where they appear to have both moved on, and one years later that suggests the other strands may or may not be dreams. Across each of these sections the characters go through about every emotion it’s possible for a couple to experience against an indie soundtrack.
There’s ecstasy, regret, jealousy and the possibility that (try as they may) it’s maybe just not the right fit. Of course such a potentially claustrophobic drama needs standout performances. Luckily Long and Rossum are both on form and deliver the theatrical goods. Long is surprisingly accomplished, offering enough vulnerability that we warm to Dell despite the constant narcissism, nerd entitlement and passive aggression. In response to his world-weariness Rossum gives an energetic, charming and assured performance. Their chemistry is effortless, and each does very well to hold our attention for what, with lesser actors, could have definitely been a very trying 90 minutes. The problem is that while the acting from both is solid, what they say renders this less a two hander and more a one person show. Esmail does a good job of constructing the script with strong intertextuality, clever call backs and ample room for interpretation yet, he’s really neglected Kimberley as a character. Unfortunately, despite the solid turn from Rossum, she’s as vacuous a character as her date from the start.
We know Dell is smart, funny and witty because we see enough of him in it. But in case we were to miss that, her dialogue is there to remind us. She’s not a person in her own right, and instead serves to react to his character; all her best lines are means to flatter or summarise him. Save for a scene of her singing pop songs on the way to a gun club (ignoring Dell’s strained and clumsy metaphor borrowed from the Selfish Gene), there’s very little sign of her having a life outside of him. Furthermore, with sub-Holmesian deduction Dell guesses and explains away anything in her character that may be a quirk, meaning her role has little to surprise her love interest or the audience. The problem is that without an emotional tie to both parties then many of the bits that should work simply don’t, and the worst parts become as pretentious as the melodrama it mocks. Partner this with a habit of pointing out a cliché after including it, some misplaced meta humour that’s neither deep nor developed enough, plus a script that often sounds like a series of barely related observations, and you’re looking at a piece that just can’t quite do its ambitious aims justice. Sure, it’s definitely not a disaster of Challenger proportions but neither is it out of this world.