To make a relationship work is one of the hardest things ever; what is almost equally difficult, as history has shown, is to make one work on screen when that’s all the film is about. Dell is a cynic who speaks sort of like Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network, and Kimberly is a wide-eyed poet way out of Dell’s league. Together, they make for some of the wittiest and most believable moments drifting in and out of time. In Kimberly’s book, Comet is a painting: without beginning, without middle and without end. This short-release feature by Sam Esmail doesn’t look for the triumph of love nor the progressive connection between the pair; instead armed with a surreal script, it reflects the many faces of time as it glides through the romance of an odd couple.
As a reassurance to readers, a prior knowledge of the mechanics of space-time and parallel universes isn’t required to enjoy Comet, although certain sources may say so. What Esmail presents to us in the so called boxed universes are the non-sequential years of a relationship, as the emotions bubble from cute to bittersweet to restless. What may seem at first glance to be randomly ordered actually has rhyme and reason to go along with it, making the move forward seem progressive despite the constant jumping back and forth. This is the laudable quality of Esmail’s script, although it skips from the first meeting to the last, it lets on to its audience only as much as needed to build a coherent picture in their minds. From popping the question to breaking up and getting back together, everything happens in a referenced manner, each step of each timeline dancing with each other. There are however, times when the philosophical conversation about time and dreams may seem jarring for the film, but its purpose is served in its execution: the film does not restrict itself to time, it floats as a picture outside of it.
It is true that Comet brushes shortly with elements of science fiction, especially the manner in which the transition between timelines take place. This raises the question as Dell did in the very first encounter, the undeniable allusion to Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense. There may be inferences drawn as to Dell having been dead the whole time, with his dreams of love flashing before his eyes, or fantasies of pursuing a relationship with the girl whom he was transfixed by the moment before his death. This isn’t a spoiler as it may seem to those who haven’t seen the movie; the purpose isn’t to deduce what the meaning of everything that occurs is. This reflects on so many levels to the relationship between Dell and Kimberly, fluctuating and shifting around, on and off again without purpose. This absence of purpose and a bigger meaning to things is what frustrates Dell the most; his usually logical and uncannily intuitive brain cannot handle uncertainty. As he says of himself, while she lives in the ‘now’, he sustains himself on the ‘five minutes from now’. It is this absence of resolution and something for all these random events to lead up to that makes the ambiguous climax all the more meaningful.
The images in the film all reflect the dream-like fantasy being lived over and over again by the characters, what makes it seem like an endless river of universes where each attempt at being together might amount to something. Every picture seems distant from each other, relationships subsiding in ebbs and flows, all to create the erratic mind of Dell, frustrated constantly by the lack of meaning in all things. Although the buzzing television-like transitions between timelines seem stylistic at first, Dell’s reaction and involvement in these moments turn more and more real with each uncertainty. His is a mind that dwells on logic, and the absence of the same in his first true relationship – perhaps it is for Kimberly as well – makes him question the reality of things, hoping for order in the universe. I admit, there are times when his character goes off on tangents about foresight and dreams of conversations he hasn’t had yet, and this does seem to not align with the rest. But I can allow room for forgiveness when the film entices us with its characters and invites us into its quest for meaning which can never be found. To this end, glimmering images dancing around in the universally accepted colours of fantasies – blue, pink and white – surround the story with well-fitting landscape. The director also uses a creative design in many scenes reflecting upon the moment by focusing not on the characters but rather on everything but them. These frames which seem off-shot are to reflect upon the universal nature of the event unfolding, asking us to look to the stars, or to the light filtering in through the curtains. Not to make them seem larger than life, but to induce expectations of a conclusion which they keep teasing us with.
There are all the while films that approach the relationship between its characters in a different manner, but mostly it gets lost in the task of appearing different. While this same argument has been made of Esmail’s debut, I feel this isn’t justified for the very reason that I praise Boyhood. Life does not work or feel like a film, each event finding its place in the bigger story, all leading upto a conclusion, whether that conclusion be reaffirming or downright devastating. The constant channel-switching in Comet serves two purposes – one, to generate a feeling of nostalgia in viewing the stages of a relationship that might very well be yours or mine, separately representing the different individuals we are over the course of time. This is subtly managed in starkly contrasting fashion styles and moods of the characters, going from falling hopelessly in love in a quirky red cap and glasses, to blowing up on each other in the ironic Paris setting. But it is the second purpose that intrigues me the most: there is no point to arranging the stages in chronological order, as even the sweetest moments are forgotten as time plunders its way through, and there is no happy smile-ended climax one can look forward to. That is not to say that Comet is a despair-filled film or a cinematic Sylvia Plath, but that is the philosophy that permeates through all the sweetest and darkest of moments for the couple.
Films that rely completely on a handful of characters essentially needs to excel in its characterization and the interaction between the few. As Locke last year did with Tom Hardy – perhaps a much safer bet than Justin Long and Emmy Rossum – Esmail’s Comet is shouldered by Long and Rossum alone, as it ignores the characters’ jobs and interests outside what appears over the course of conversation. Even Dell’s dying mother is mentioned precisely thrice in the film, despite its undeniable effect on the man and his relationship as an effect. Taking risks such as these are always make or break, either the audience connects emotionally to the characters and embrace them as you embrace the positive reviews, or the characters end up being bland and you hide under the covers until the whole thing blows over. Thankfully, Long and Rossum have incredible on-screen chemistry, making that extreme-opposites formula work wonderfully. Every second they’re on screen, the two aided by Esmail manages to make us forget Long’s disturbing performance in Tusk and do that special thing of creating characters completely devoid of the actors themselves. Without this crucial quality, Comet would have been an unbearable back-and-forth between two maddening individuals whose conversations are unhinged and make no sense. It is this chemistry that gives flight to the conversation about time and space, and existence in parallel universes, all leading upto these six encounters. I love it when films do this, succeed in giving life to discussions that seem alien to the plot, merely by having well-drawn, layered characters speak the words.
Like a comet, the film is about encounters and reactions all leaving behind a trail of images as it fizzles to uncertainty, and manages to hold itself together for the most part. With a more clever script than this genre is endowed with usually, Esmail’s stages of a relationship may seem overreaching at times and bordering on the pretentious, but it never lets itself to be carried away with the conversation. What may seem like a scattered love story proves to be delicately moving and riding along the lines of its metaphysical conversation. The script is tantalizing, with fast-paced conversation that is reminiscent of The Social Network, and drives two characters whose lives outside each other we are never concerned with. There is quick charm on both Dell and Kimberly, making the viewers see reason behind the characters’ actions while they hurt and kindle each other, without giving away too much. Comet is not here to give you closure, but on closer scrutiny, is a window into Dell’s mind – one that keeps chasing a happy ending, jumping back and forth between events to try to get something right. But there is no resolution, and there lies its beauty. The whole affair gets lost in the momentum of things, the beautiful frustration of not knowing where anything is leading, all captured in a frame outside the tormentor that is time.