The opening text of Comet informs the audience that the story takes place over the span of six years in an alternate universe that is just slightly different from our own. We watch as Dell (Justin Long) meets Kimberly (Emmy Rossum) on the way to a viewing of a meteor shower. The movie jumps between four other conversations between them in different venues: in a Paris hotel room just before attending a wedding, on a train headed to Portland, on the phone while on opposite coasts, and at Kimberly’s place right before she moves on to the next phase in her life.
The reason for the non-linear narrative is actually explained in one of these conversations. The characters struggle against the tyranny of linear time, with its beginnings, middles and ends. At one point, Kimberly professes to preferring paintings, as their content is not subject to those linear rules. And it’s kind of an interesting thought, but it is matched in this movie with a relationship that isn’t entirely worth caring about. If this movie were a painting, it wouldn’t be worth hanging up.
It begins with a toxic main character. Dell is just painful to watch, his sense of superiority suffocating most of the scenes in that he’s in. There’s supposed to be an arc here, a journey towards becoming a better person, or at least someone worth investing in as a character. But there just isn’t. The film checks in on him on five different occasions, and on each one he is still the same caustic, generally unimpressive person who feels entitled to the love of a person that he’s awful to.
The idea, of course, is that this isn’t your average romantic drama. There is an intriguing notion in here about how a bad relationship can be just as formative and important as a good one. But the thing is, the film doesn’t even make the bad relationship interesting. This isn’t Blue Valentine, which finds fascinating ways to signify the end for a couple. This is just a series of overly written conversations that don’t actually shed much insight into the characters. The film is more concerned with being clever than with being true.
The film’s main appeal lies in its shooting style. It is visually interesting, the film using all kinds of tricks to give their interactions a dreamlike quality. But these frames, though nicely composed, rarely offer much in the way actual storytelling. The acting is all right, but the characters are really a tough sell. Emmy Rossum is saddled with a character that can’t quite ever explain her choices, but the actress does lend her plenty of charm. Justin Long is stuck with the irredeemable Dell. Long embraces the smugness of the character, and it boils over into sheer unlikability.
Comet, in the end, is just about its mechanics. It is about the experiment of stopping time in an inherently temporal narrative, mucking up the sequence of events such that it doesn’t matter in the end. And while that’s all fine and good, the content that they chose to lock in this temporal bottle just isn’t worth all the trouble. The film overinvests in its own cleverness, trying way too hard to sell us on the idea of a relationship that just isn’t any good on paper. And it isn’t good on screen, either. When the characters profess their love, it all rings hollow. The excess of visual style just makes the film look garish and pretentious, a distraction from the lack of real human emotion.