Comet (R) BUY THE:Poster!
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Hopping back and forth and back again between five key moments in a young couple's (Justin Long and Emmy Rossum) relationship over the span of six years in--as an opening title card states--"a few parallel universes over," it's tempting to call Sam Esmail's romantic dramedy Comet as taking place within a dream, namely that of the male half of the couple, Dell (Long). But as Dell and the film's opening lines repeatedly state, "This is not a dream," and as one witnesses he and love of his life Kimberly (Rossum) fall in and out of love, attempt to work things out or break things off across the cosmic space-time continuum, it gradually becomes clear that the "parallel universe" in which Esmail is exploring and playing is not necessarily the space of slumbering shut-eye fantasy (though the characters actually bring up the possibility of being in a dream) but the more immediate, more present hyper-real clarity of memory. With that realization, what can initially come off as the undeniably amusing but perhaps too-clever indulgences of a first-time writer/director--the meet-cute(s) between the leads, who conveniently fall into the polar opposites of romantic believer (she) and more rational skeptic (he); the witty and very writerly bon mot-heavy repartée; the scattered time structure; the occasionally fanciful visual flourishes--prove to be especially inspired, emotionally astute, and altogether more truthful choices. Certain trigger words and actions set off and bleed into thoughts of other moments, which are remembered not in their mundane, everyday reality but a heightened space where wisecracks are all the more quick and glib; conversations and words in general being all the more cutting; milestone moments playing out, on all levels, all the more monumentally--and thus the emotions, from joy to pain and all frequently conflicted points in between, that much more acutely, intimately, and honestly felt.
It's a tricky balance to play, and an additional burden to the actors who are already tasked to carry what is essentially a tightly-focused two-hander, and Long and Rossum exceed expectations with some revelatory, career-best work. It's one thing for a screen couple to have chemistry, and these two are indeed electric together, especially excelling in making Esmail's sharp, often hilariously barbed dialogue consistently crackle and, more importantly, sound and feel natural. But it's quite another thing to also nail the warts-and-all dimensions of the relationship and the characters as individuals. Just as understandable and convincing as their attraction are the reasons why, at various points, the two simply cannot and will not truly connect, be it his motormouth tendencies, her flightiness, or anything else. The genuine feelings they have for each other are, no matter at what given point their relationship is, incredibly palpable, and Long and Rossum's soulful turns and effortless rapport make Dell and Kimberly a consistently empathetic, likable, and rootable pair, even with their fundamental differences and perhaps toxic incompatibilities revealed over time.
Most debut independent writer/directors are stronger in one discipline over the other, making all the more notable Esmail's that ease with confidence and both. The engaging banter may most strongly strike at first, but how creatively the visuals support the text as it plays temporal hopscotch, quite often beautifully so: the otherworldly hues of the meteor shower that marks their first meeting; the ethereal whites and blues of a hotel room in Paris reflecting a certain suspension of time as the fate of their relationship hangs in the balance; the sometimes garish golden browns conveying the warmth and dawning of a potential new start; the more grounded palette of the moments where one receives rude awakenings of truth. But as frequently stunning as Eric Koretz's cinematography is, it is never ostentatiously showy, but one tool Esmail employs to create that very specific atmosphere of remembrance and that tactile sensation of remembered feeling.
Comet is one of those gems whose layers deepen as the film goes along, leading one to actively root for all involved to stick the landing, so to speak, which is an accomplishment far more easier said than commonly done. So it's a remarkable testament to the sensitive and piercing work of Long, Rossum, and especially Esmail that the climax and finale not only poignantly culminate Dell and Kimberly's shared and individual arcs but also exemplify the very special larger feat pulled off here: making such an admittedly, unabashedly small scale story feel so powerfully universal, as if to transcend the weight and boundaries of space and time.