Imagine you’re watching your relationship on TV. It is playing on five channels, with each channel airing a different stage of the relationship. When things get too uncomfortable, awkward or emotional, you just flip the channel. On that next channel, you’d continue to watch your relationship unfold, maybe from a point a few years later. The cumulative result of the experience would probably put into perspective the whole of what you and another person can be together. Loving in one moment, hateful in another, caring, selfish and more.
That metaphor is an elaborate attempt to describe Comet, the directorial debut ofSam Esmail, which had its world premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival this weekend. Comet stars Emmy Rossum and Justin Long as the central couple. While there is absolutely no TV channel surfing involved, the film’s complex and fascinating structure feels like that, from the audience perspective. It’s a dense, funny, insanely well-written and well-acted film. Unlike most romantic films, it keeps you guessing. Simultaneously, it raises questions about the nature of love, life, and truth, all disguised in an semi-conventional love story told in the most unconventional of ways. It’s a special movie.
Dell (Long) and Kimberly (Rossum) meet at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles. They’re each there to watch a meteor shower, Fate, and Dell’s big mouth, help strike up a relationship. That’s one of five different stories Esmail jumps between, almost at random, throughout the course of the movie. We then see the couple in Paris, on a train, doing the long distance thing and meeting up at an apartment. As the film begins, we don’t know when each of these events take place. We know they’re happier in some times than others, but as the film unfolds, one of its biggest pleasures is the slow reveal of the order of things. Little between Dell and Kimberly unfolds in a traditional manner.
We stay invested in these stories because Esmail has written great characters, and the performances are even better. As Kimberly, Rossum is at the top of her game. She gives an award-worthy performance. She’s charming, wacky, somehow attainable, and average, in addition to being appealing and attractive. The balance of wonderful is kind of hard to describe. Long, too, does some of the best work of his career as Dell. He channels the fast-talking portrait of someone you might find in an Aaron Sorkin or David Mamet script, infused with a minor shot of Kevin Smith’s pop culture wit, wrapped around a neurotic emotional center. You can tell Dell is an off-putting guy, but he’s so smart you can’t help but be drawn to him. Esmail has created two wholly original, quirky, but somehow normal characters that Rossum and Long bring to life beautifully.
As the film jumps around the timeline, we begin to question the authority of these stories. Are these just from one character’s point of view? Are these things even happening? There’s never a moment where Comet telegraphs what’s next. You’re always engaged, whether you’re piecing together the narrative or unraveling the long, deep conversations Dell and Kimberly have about the nature of everything. Plus, Esmail constantly fills his frame with something for the audience to consider. Characters are rarely viewed in rote medium shots. They’re almost always seen in close-up, or in the corner of the frame, bathed in some elaborate lighting scheme. The film itself is always hinting at the nature of what’s going on, even when it’s not saying it.
But, most of the time, it is saying it. Dell in particular is a verbose and very thoughtful character, but as we live with him for 90 minutes his discussions begin to border on pretentiousness. That’s definitely the point, but it doesn’t make him less annoying from time to time. The writing also contains a lot of repetition and melodrama which, again, is the point, but feels slightly indulgent. It works, but takes away from the overall success of the film.
Nevertheless, Comet is a bitter sweet tale of a complicated, fantasy relationship that keeps you guessing and interested from frame one. The performances are outstanding, the directing is top-notch and the writing feels fully realized and stage worthy. A few speedbumps aside, it announces the coming of a new filmmaker to watch: Sam Esmail.