Palm Springs gives a fresh coat of paint to the oft-parodied plot of Groundhog Day with thought-provoking twists on that familiar formula.
Ever since society shut down at the start of March to stave off the spread of coronavirus, it feels as if we’ve all been trapped in our own torturous “time loops,” doomed to repeat the same day over and over again, seemingly until the end of existence (unless our governments come to their senses and grasp the impact of ignoring this infection any longer). Holed up in our homes, we’ve been confined to constantly carrying out the same chores, having minimal interaction with the rest of mankind, and reading repetitive news reports about the rise of COVID-19 cases. When caught in such a cheerless cycle, it’s easy to feel forlorn and surrender to the senselessness of our current surroundings; with no end in sight to this strife, why should we care about anything? When the world seems to be perishing, what’s the point?
With all that being said, Palm Springs premiered at perhaps the perfect time, nailing the nihilism that nags so many of us at this very moment while also offering a hearty helping of optimism to those who have lost all hope. Andy Samberg (Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, Hot Rod) stars as the nonchalant Nyles, a guest at a wedding taking place in the titular town who has been caught repeating this same celebration for an indefinite amount of time. While fearful at first, Nyles has since acclimated to this absurdity, adopting a “nothing matters” mindset and making do in this draining day as best he can. Unfortunately, after an attempted hook-up with the wedding’s maid of honor – the sardonic Sarah (Cristin Milioti, of How I Met Your Mother and The Wolf of Wall Street) – goes haywire, she also finds herself tangled in the exact same “time loop” as Nyles, and the two must come to seek solace in one another as they maneuver through this mundanity.
Groundhog Day’s story structure has been borrowed by genres such as sci-fi (2010’s Source Code), action (2014’s Edge of Tomorrow), drama (2017’s Before I Fall) and even horror (2017’s Happy Death Day), but Palm Springs is one of the only homages to that 1993 comedy classic to actually add to its ideas instead of completely copying its construction beat for beat. By including another individual in Nyles’ particular predicament, the film is able to explore more elaborate existential crises about life, love, and long-term relationships. That all of these theatrics take place on the day of a wedding is no accident – what better way to capture the countless concerns that couples have before committing to one another completely than by probing the problems of this peculiar pairing that’s now tied together for the rest of time?
Writer Andy Siara – in his first feature-length screenplay – creatively covers the conventional “time-loop” tricks (including the many montages we’ve come to count on in films like this that portray the protagonists’ flourishing familiarity with their surroundings and their endless attempts at escape), but it’s his previously mentioned philosophical ponderings that help Palm Springs stand out from the pack. While the film is indeed ferociously funny – often uproariously so – the tender treatment of the relationship at the root of story makes sure that the romance remains just as important as all of the raucous ribbing.
With Siara’s complex characterization of both Nyles and Sarah, the two are more than just convincing comedians; they illustrate all the insecurities of a generation that feels stuck in space and fears the future and the idea of “forever.” All of us are aimlessly ambling throughout time, doubting every decision we make and persistently puzzling over every path we pursue in the face of immense uncertainty, and Siara’s script dynamically depicts that disillusion through his listless leads. Each has their own set of struggles to sort through while “trapped” as well, and these character-specific conflicts elicit further audience engagement by padding out their personalities and revealing even more relatability.
Without stars like Samberg and Milioti at the forefront of the film, it’s hard to imagine the concept being as captivating as it is, but luckily, Palm Springs is provided with two powerhouse performances that keep pace with Siara’s witty writing. Samberg’s comedic capabilities have never been in question (and in case you need further proof, go rent Popstar this very instant), but here, he’s tasked with synthesizing his sillier sensibilities with some stirring solemnity, and he does so splendidly. Yet, for all of Samberg’s affecting authenticity, Milioti may be even more magnetizing, competently channeling both cynicism and charm as the sneering Sarah. With a delirious dedication to the film’s most gaudy gags and an alluring emotional arc often only initially hinted at by her extravagantly expressive eyes, Milioti is both brilliantly hilarious and heartbreaking; if other major awards bodies don’t offer acclaim, the Golden Globes should rightfully recognize her work in the Best Actress – Comedy or Musical category by the end of the year. She’s just simply that stunning.
Though the supporting cast doesn’t receive quite as much time to shine as Palm Springs’ central couple, they make the most with their moments regardless. J.K. Simmons is the strongest standout as a bow-and-arrow-wielding assassin-esque figure hunting Samberg’s Nyles for reasons that won’t be disclosed here, but celebrated character actors such as Dale Dickey, Peter Gallagher, and June Squibb are all amusing additions too. In actuality, the most impressive individuals involved in Palm Springs outside of Samberg and Milioti are editors Andrew Dickler (Me and You and Everyone We Know) and Matt Friedman (The Farewell), who manage this 90-minute movie’s momentum magnificently and keep the chaos moving at a clip (most notably in their madcap montages). In a comedy, pacing is pivotal, and Dickler and Friedman never leave in any dead air that would allow the film’s energy to evaporate.
Thanks to the off-the-charts chemistry between Sandberg and Milioti and the weird and whimsical writing of Andy Siara, Palm Springs is a riotously rewarding romcom and a perfect parable for these trying times. Although the film can be enjoyed for its side-splitting surface-level surprises alone, there will be plenty of pleasures to warrant regular re-watches, courtesy of its sneakily compelling commentary on cultivating and cherishing human connection – which will remain forever relevant. With shrewd smarts and a sweet soul, Palm Springs is a supreme summer success.
Palm Springs is now available to watch on Hulu.
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