“A dream of memories; conversations that we’ve had…they weaved in and out of each other like those M.C. Escher drawings.” This is how insufferable protagonist Dell (Justin Long) describes a recent dream in Comet (2014) which, in keeping with the film’s ardent reflexivity, also describes the film itself. He’s speaking to his romantic foil, Kimberly (Emmy Rossum), who moments later – or years earlier thanks to the time-jumping nature of the narrative chronology – tells him that she’s too tired for another of his “meta-arguments.” She’s not the only one. It’s an ambitious debut from Sam Esmail but its exploration of a flawed relationship buckles beneath the weight of its own wry self-awareness.
It’s a characteristic determined largely by its two leads, who spend an hour and in half navigating labyrinthine conversations that veer from pop culture to philosophy, beyond the fourth wall and back again. An opening title card places in the action in an alternative universe and an early scene floats the possibility that the whole thing is some post-mortem apparition – both of which serve partially to mitigate against the self-conscious dialogue. The problem is that little of what they say over the course of, what is explained as six years of, their on-again/off-again courtship proves to be as entertaining or meaningful as is necessary to tether such a mercurial storyline. Choral electronic music is suggestive of more convincing profundity that Comet actually manages. In part, this can be explained as evoking the fatal pretentious flaw of Dell, who considers himself smarter than anyone he meets, but who lacks fundamental insight.
Long plays him very well, imbuing him with an instant unlikeability without alienating to the extent that his appeal to Kimberly is incomprehensible. She, on the other hand, is served less well as a rounded character but is at least given a sunstantial amount of the film’s agency even if she proves to be less interesting on the whole. As they flirt and argue through a midnight stroll, a train journey, a long-distance phone call and in a Paris hotel room, the action shifts back and forth between the two at vital thematically linked moments. The effect works well for the most part even if the insistence on validating the structural techniques via the characters’ pseudo-intellectual conversations begins to grate and negates its impact.
The same problem inhibits Eric Koretz’s cinematography which is uniformly beautiful to behold, but suffers at the hands of its studied composition with perennially off-kilter framing that are presumably intended to echo the kooky characters and wider ‘alternative’ styling. It’s the double-edged sword of trying to craft an indie romance that will stand out from the crowd; it may well be memorable to those that see it, but not necessarily for the best reasons. Long’s performance is a definite positive and the ambition is encouraging to see, but Comet is perhaps more successful as a directorial calling card than the timeless love story it pertains to be.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson