Flashes of promise can’t save “Comet,” an ambitious indie misfire that adopts a playful time-jumping chronology in order to chart five key turning points in a six-year relationship. The effect is a little like “Annie Hall” by way of “Don’t Look Now,” though the overly self-conscious approach of debuting writer-director Sam Esmail proves far too exasperating to really merit such lofty comparisons. Committed performances by co-leads Justin Long and Emmy Rossum (both also credited as executive producers) will be the primary draw, but the hard-to-warm-to nature of the characters will further limit the pic’s dicey commercial prospects after its Los Angeles Film Festival premiere. A VOD release emphasizing the stars sounds about right.
An opening title card informs that the events we’re about to see “take place over six years (a few parallel universes over),” which can be read as either an explanation or an apology for the overbearing barrage of artificial repartee to come in the next 90 minutes. The thoroughly insufferable Dell (Long) is introduced at the moment he’s told by phone that his mother has cancer. Far from finding him sympathetic, however, audiences will likely already have tired of his smart-alecky verbal diarrhea by the time he meets Kimberly (Rossum) mere minutes later.
Kimberly saves him from being hit by an oncoming car at the Hollywood Forever cemetery, where they’ve arrived separately to watch a meteor shower that evening. Dell is flying solo but Kimberly is on a date with Josh (Eric Winter), a pompous hunk given to loudly proclaiming his antipathy for both New York (it’s not relevant anymore) and the Beatles (worthless without Pete Best). Believing she deserves better, Dell makes his play.
Before they’re even together, the film jumps ahead to some point after they’ve split up, when they meet again at random on the street and share memories of a fateful fight in a Paris hotel room. “Comet” gets to that hotel room in due time, as well as a transcontinental cell-phone conversation and a rendezvous in Kimberly’s Hollywood apartment — each representing a different stage in the evolution of the central relationship.
With its laserlike focus on those pivotal moments — the meet-cute, big fight, calamitous confession, bittersweet reunion and possible reconciliation — “Comet” overlooks any sense of how the pair actually function as a couple. Pessimistic Dell is such a toxic presence (he unsurprisingly admits to having been diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder), and Kimberly so underwritten by comparison (she mostly has to react to Dell’s awful behavior), that Esmail struggles to build any rooting interest in their relationship. They banter nonstop, complete with a slew of random pop-culture references (from Tupac to Roald Dahl to Jack Tripper) that fail to define either character in any meaningful way.
Lapses in the screenplay are mitigated only slightly by the natural chemistry between Long and Rossum. They’re such a perfect match onscreen, in both physical presence and acting style, that one can only hope for a stronger vehicle in the future to better explore the potential left untapped here.
In a sense, Esmail attempts to accomplish in a single film what Richard Linklater did over three in his “Before … ” series (a comparison underscored not only by letting Dell and Kimberly’s first encounter play out over the course of the film, but also by setting one of their extended conversations on a train). One of Esmail’s concerns is the way Dell unintentionally dooms the relationship with his belief that it can’t possibly work out, so it makes sense to portray the full arc, but the phoniness of the “Comet” conceit shines through in the film’s stubborn detachment from reality.
In addition to the “parallel universe” title card, both Dell and Kimberly keep referring to their situation in knowingly meta ways. Is this all a dream? A premonition? An alternate reality? Did Dell actually get hit by the car in the cemetery and die? All questions that would have been better left for viewers to ponder, rather than allowing the characters to explicitly raise them onscreen, especially since the film never shifts fully into sci-fi or fantasy territory.
Tech credits are generally more winning than the characterizations, especially Eric Koretz’s whimsical camerawork, which uncovers a handful of striking images through off-kilter framing and unconventional angles. Editor Franklin Peterson and production designer Annie Spitz wisely resist an open invitation to go over-the-top as the narrative bobs and weaves through time, while someone (perhaps hair department heads Lauren Kress and Sharon Rivera) deserves a shout-out for the mystifying frizzy perm Rossum sports during the cell-phone chat sequences.