Sam Esmail’s First Movie Breaks the Rom-Com Formula, and It Works


The Big Picture

  • Sam Esmail’s film Comet breaks the rules of the romantic comedy genre by using nonlinear storytelling to unravel the doomed relationship between Dell and Kimberly.
  • The initial “meet cute” between Dell and Kimberly sets up their connection based on shared disdain for idiots, but the film quickly reveals their unhappy future.
  • Esmail’s nonlinear approach to storytelling in Comet adds depth and mystery to Dell and Kimberly’s dynamic, showcasing the beauty and tragedy of their relationship.

Anyone who has seen Mr. Robot knows that writer/director Sam Esmail knows his way around nonlinear storytelling. Esmail’s idiosyncratic hacker series found creative ways to upend the audience’s expectations through its inventive use of flashbacks, changes in perspective, and misleading visuals, Esmail was able to use these storytelling “gimmicks” to get in the mind of his protagonist, Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek). While Mr. Robot was a grim, anti-authoritarian espionage series that dealt with modern political issues, Esmail has shown that his skills as a storyteller apply to many different genres. Esmail’s 2014 directorial debut, Comet, used its nonlinear devices to break the rules of the romantic comedy genre.

Image via IFC Films


Set in a parallel universe, Comet bounces back and forth over the course of an unlikely but perfectly paired couple’s six-year relationship.

‘Comet’ Starts Like a Normal Rom-Com

Comet opens with a chance encounter between two science enthusiasts during an astronomy event. Dell (Justin Long in a rare non-horror role) takes the moment to talk to Kimberly (Emmy Rossum) after a loudmouth man in line for the event draws both of their derision. It’s a fairly standard “meet cute” scenario that establishes that this pair has something in common: neither of them can stand to be around idiots. The film then does everything that most romantic comedies would be expected to do; Dell and Kimberly learn more about each other and reflect on how strange it is that their chance encounter was so fruitful. Although both characters have their charms, there’s nothing within the opening moments of Comet that breaks the rom-com format.

However, Sam Esmail follows up this charming initial meeting with a scene of Dell six years later; although it’s not spelled out specifically what has happened to him, it’s evident that Dell has lost touch with any of the issues he was passionate about during his first meeting with Kimberly. While the derision he had about everyday life in his initial conversation with Kimberly had been rather comical, this older version of Dell lacks any sense of whimsy. It’s soon that Esmail reveals his hand; this is six years later, and Dell and Kimberly have already broken up. Any signs of hope that the opening scene had sparked have now completely evaporated.

Yet, Esmail isn’t content to just let Dell continue down his path of misery for the rest of the story. He proceeds to go back in time, flashing back to moments over the last six years in which Dell and Kimberlys’ paths crossed. As all great storytellers know, an ending isn’t as interesting as a journey. The fact that Dell and Kimberly don’t end up together isn’t a twist; it’s a reality. Comet isn’t trying to hook the viewer in by asking if the central relationship will work. Kimberly and Dell weren’t meant to be together, but Esmail is more interested in why they were drawn to each other in the first place. Comet is heartbreaking because both characters manage to convince themselves that this doomed relationship will work. Thanks to the creative way that the story is structured, Esmail manages to trick the audience too.

What Happens at the End of ‘Comet’?

The brilliance of Comet is that everything about Dell and Kimberly’s personalities is laid out within their first interaction. Dell is a pessimist, and increasingly reveals himself to be a narcissist; his first comments to Kimberly were only made because he wanted to impress her by shutting down another person in line. Although Dell has his charms, he only views Kimberly as an extension of himself. She’s interesting to him because her interests align with his own. Kimberly is inherently curious, and Dell thinks this means that she’s interested in the same things that he is. Dell assumes that Kimberly will be bound to these same interests for the rest of her life; he never stops to consider that she may have passions of her own. This assumption that Dell makes during the very first scene is what ends up dooming him for the rest of the story.

Similarly, it becomes clear over time that Kimberly’s curiosity means that she will never be satisfied with stability. In one flash to the future, it’s revealed that Kimberly had rejected Dell’s marriage proposal because she never felt that she could be satisfied by their relationship. Dell sees “settling down” as a reward, but Kimberly sees it as a curse. This is all tied back to how they perceived the meteor shower in the first place. Dell had anticipated this astrological event, but for Kimberly, it was just a passing fad. Dell sees a profound meaning in his life, but Kimberly doesn’t think it’s that simple, as she doesn’t think that her life’s meaning can be condensed into such a simple message. Kimberly hates the simplistic optimism of Pixar movies, which provokes serious derision from Dell.

What Makes ‘Comet’ So Heartbreaking?

Sam Esmail’s writing is on point, as like Noah Baumbach or Greta Gerwig, he’s able to make his self-obsessed characters interesting to watch nonetheless. The way that Comet switches between different events in Dell and Kimberlys’ relationship turns their relationship into a mystery; what was the inciting incident that set off their breakup? Esmail has the maturity to realize that it didn’t come down to just one fight. It was a series of miscommunications, moral disagreements, and petty remarks that built up over time.

Had Esmail followed a traditional narrative structure, seeing one argument after another would have quickly been quite irritating. No one wants to see two narcissists pick at each other until their relationship is over. The nonlinear structure makes their dynamic more interesting; happy moments are immediately followed by downward spirals, breakups happen before reunions, and rejection precipitates the marriage proposal. By showing the events out of order, Esmail reveals the beauty in Dell and Kimberly’s relationship; yes, it ended badly, but that doesn’t mean that they didn’t have a few great experiences together.

The creativity that Sam Esmail showed in Comet earmarked him as an interesting filmmaker who was aware of trends within the romantic comedy genre. He knows that Dell is a narcissist, that Kimberly’s fleeting attention is obnoxious, and that spending time with these characters could quickly grow dull. Comet is like a whodunit where a relationship, not a person, is killed. It was a refreshing way to approach a story and characters that would have been considered generic otherwise.

Comet is streaming on Tubi in the U.S.

Watch on Tubi


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