Opens Fri., Dec. 12 at Sundance Cinemas. Not rated. 91 minutes.
A relationship put through a cracked prism, Comet immediately alludes to parallel universes enfolded within its six-year span. And those years (or scenes) will come entirely out of order. If that’s not enough, its hero (Justin Long) invokes The Sixth Sense more than once—he could be dreaming, he says, or possibly dead. Or, taking another step back, he could be a befuddled spectator like us of the events unfolding. This debut feature by Sam Esmail means to keep you off-balance, and does; though that ends up being an exhausting stance both for us and the film’s two lovers. Will they reach equilibrium (i.e., a happy ending)? Each time it teeters within reach, Esmail totters us back to a prior point in the relationship. The tease matters more than the totality here.
Dell (Long) and Kimberly (Emmy Rossum) randomly meet at a meteor-watching party held in an L.A. cemetery full of famous graves. (Love, prepare to be buried.) The know-it-all Dell is so aggressively off-putting and neurotic, a cynic who nonetheless falls for Kimberly at first sight, that we know he’ll be converted to a sincere romantic in the end. He’s a motor-mouthed brainiac who puts his Ph.D. to good use in the plot. She’s not quite a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, yet she has no fixed identity or profession beyond being the object of Dell’s ardor. (Though, in one MPDG flourish, she drives her robin’s-egg-blue vintage Saab to the gun range: quirk in place of character.)
No one else really exists in the movie, not outside the first fateful scene (to which we’ll return repeatedly, like the other half-dozen vignettes stitched together with dialogue cues). Comet is cosmic and expansive, yet oddly claustrophobic. (With all the time-skipping synchronicity, Chris Nolan would love it.) There’s talk of a cancer-afflicted mother and a romantic rival, but they only exist in one of Dell’s parallel universes. Esmail’s relentless editing scheme and aggressively clever writing make Comet as deterministic as it is romantic, undercutting its two leads. Long is capable of playing notes beyond smartass, and the script gives him a few. Rossum (from TV’s Shameless) hasn’t done much since her ingenue role in The Phantom of the Opera, but her Kimberly morphs plausibly through a half-dozen years of impatience with Dell. Does he deserve a second chance? (Or a third or a fourth or a sixth?) Not in this universe.