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June 30, 2015
There is something about Sam Esmail’s directorial debut that makes you want to like it, to forgive its flaws and self-consciousness. In an unintentional mirroring of the relationship of its protagonists – Dell (Justin Long; Jeepers Creepers, Dodgeball) and Kimberly (Emmy Rossum; Shameless, Songcatcher) – whose on/off romance the film follows, it feels as if the idea and ambition behind the project were good but things just got a little messy along the way.
As the film opens we are told that the action we are about to see happens over a six-year period ‘a few parallel universes over’, though the parallel universe concept never really troubles the narrative again. Esmail proceeds to break up the five-act structure and zip us back and forth through it and thus through time.
The couple meet at a meteor shower at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery where Dell’s clumsy and verbose advances gradually persuade Kimberly to skip out on her hunky one-dimensional date.
The action then jumps between meltdowns in Paris, a rekindling of romance on a train and traumatic revelations during a coast-to-coast call. The characters are knowingly meta about everything and each scene fizzles out in juddering rainbow colours like Quantum Leap for the Instagram generation. The only question is: why?
Perhaps Esmail forgot to ask himself if these constructs are integral or just a decorative façade for a love story that is neither as complex nor as metaphysical as he wishes it to be.
Its play with structure doesn’t have a strong enough narrative point, and the meaning and pathos that a work like Harold Pinter’s Betrayal achieves through its reverse chronology is lacking: by rewinding the relationship, Pinter reveals to us not only that love is predicated on the lies we tell, but also what we know and fear about the failure of love – that the end is always rooted in the beginning.
To add more pressure to the concept, the film is an intense two-hander, focused entirely on the wisecracking (sometimes tiresome) banter between the two protagonists.
Yet the two leads have chemistry and in particular Justin Long delivers a strong performance that makes the unappealing character of Dell, a super bright pharma genius, a sympathetic one. Rossum’s character doesn’t get such a coherent identity for the talented actress to work with, but there’s something about the pair on screen that makes the film enjoyable.
The premise and his structural games do allow Esmail (who is also credited as writer) to muse on love’s lack of chronology, how in some way it refutes the construct of time.
At one point Dell notes our brains can’t tell the difference between memories and dreams, and the film explores the way love exists in our thoughts like a continuous narrative reel playing in some remote corner of our minds.
It’s a rich idea, difficult to convey over the course of a movie, which hints at an extra dimension the film ultimately lacks.
Thus, though the first date was slightly awkward, Esmail clearly has talent and the second outing should be worth a look, if only to make sure we’re not missing anything.
Comet is released in UK cinemas on July 3rd