It’s not always easy to pull off high concept romantic dramas, or to futz with the format of what could be a straightforward boy-meets-girl breakup/makeup story, but in staying grounded, and real, “Comet,” directed by Sam Esmail and starring Justin Long and Emmy Rossum, manages to do just that. Jumping in between six different, specific time periods in the relationship of Dell (Long) and Kimberly (Rossum), “Comet” weaves the story of a relationship that anyone who’s ever asked “what if?” can relate to.
Much of what makes the film work is the stellar performances by the two leads, who are performing fast, dense dialogue from the six hardest moments in their two characters’ relationship: when they first meet (she’s on a date with another guy), breakup #1 (in Paris), first reunion (on a train), breakup #2 (on the phone, he’s in New York, she’s in L.A.), and what could possibly be reunion #2. Of course, this isn’t all so easily laid out, and where these events fall in the timeline of their relationship is gradually revealed through the course of their conversations. To focus on the most difficult moments of the relationship is an interesting tactic for a movie that is ultimately a romance, but it draws out those ugly bad parts of relationships that will either kill you or make you stronger, and ultimately make or break it.
These scenes give Rossum and Long some delightfully meaty monologues and dialogues to tear into, their characters either at their wits’ end or pleading with each other. Long is a neurotic, mile-a-minute, manic but riveting scientist who researches cancer drugs, and knows he’s playing out of his league with the beautiful, quirky Kimberly. Rossum oscillates between two different stages of Kimberly (which is mostly telegraphed visually through her hair): wild, unkempt, a free-spirit who gives not one fuck, versus composed, smooth, and put together. Both roles are fine showcases for the two actors’ total range.
The timeline jumping doesn’t translate into anything supernatural within the story itself, but instead serves to unfold the relationship drama in a way that almost mimics the way one goes over a failed relationship in their memory: tracing the conversations over and over, dwelling on the moments when something different could have been said or done, or when you said or did something exactly right. These two characters feel pushed together by fate, and pushed apart by their own mistakes and issues. So many of the things that they say and do, the way their relationship falls apart or falls together feels deeply realistic and will resonate with many. They way they can break up in a way that almost feels accidental, unprecedented feels very, very real, and that is driven both by Esmail’s script, and Rossum and Long’s performances.
The cosmic themes and timeline sliding give the film an otherworldly scope, a proportion more epic and fantastical than just the scale of a struggling young relationship. The storytelling also gives it the feeling of something other than an immediate reality, a memory, a dream, or even an alternate universe. Each story capsule has a distinct look and feel to the aesthetic: the Paris hotel room cool, sexy and smoky, breakup #2 capturing the grittier, danker sides of L.A. and New York. The score, by “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” composer, Daniel Hart, ties all the sections together, but also adds to the soaring, epic, fantastical tale. Is this real? We might not know.
Anchored by career-best performances from Long and Rossum, and a juicy script that bravely dives into the darkest parts of breaking up and making up, “Comet” is an original and inventive retelling of an age-old and universal truth, one expressed in Kimberly’s favorite Roxette song: it must have been love, but it’s over now.