‘Palm Springs’ Review: A Time Loop Worth Getting Stuck In
It’s Groundhog Day all over again.
Technically Hulu’s Palm Springs is set on November 9, at a wedding in the Southwest. But the premise is yet another variation of Groundhog Day, where a selfish man who must relive the same day over and over until he learns to be a better person. Palm Springs pushes the concept even further into rom-com territory by having a couple loop the same day, rather than a single person.
Nyles (Andy Samberg) is a curiously laconic guest at the wedding of Abe (Tyler Hoechlin) and Tala (Camila Mendes). He wanders around the reception in a bathing suit and a Hawaiian shirt, and interrupts the toasts to give a rambling yet moving speech. Nyles showed up with the maid of honor, but his odd behavior and curiously philosophical ramblings catch the eye of Sarah (Crisin Milioti), the sister of the bride. Nyles and Sarah hit it off, and then they’re on the verge of hooking up when ... a weirdo in camouflage (J.K. Simmons) shoots Nyles in the back with an arrow. Whoever Simmons is, he sure ain’t Cupid. After Sarah follows a dying Nyles into a glowing cave in the desert, she gets stuck sharing his time loop as well.
Even with a concept that looks familiar before Samberg and Milioti begin repeating the morning of November 9, Palm Springs makes for satisfying quarantine viewing on Hulu — particularly because its structure captures the essence of life in the age of coronavirus. We wake up every day in the same place, seeing the same people, doing the same things, going nowhere, doing nothing, contemplating when we might get out of here, and worrying what might happen if we actually do escape. Palm Springs captures so much of the existential ennui of 2020 that when we look back on this time period it will be hard to believe it wasn’t specifically created as a reaction to it. (I’m guessing that director Max Barbakow and co-writer Andy Siara were aiming more for a metaphor of the way relationships grow or stagnate. Palm Springs works nicely on that level too.)
The film offers at least one tangible piece of advice for dealing with this impossible, seemingly endless time: Keep your sense of humor about you. Palm Springs, which is billed as a “Lonely Island Production,” is consistently funny, from Samberg’s IDGAF attitude, to Milioti’s initial fury at her entrapment, to a deep roster of comic talents who bring hilarious variations to the numerous riffs through the same day. There are small but key contributions from Peter Gallagher as the father of the bride, and Dale Dickey as a patron at a local bar where Nyles and Sarah go to drink away their sorrows. When Simmons’ role in this quirky roundelay becomes clear, he gets several excellent scenes to play both the absurdity and the tragedy of his situation.
The curse of Groundhog Day was that it was so ingenious that even after Bill Murray’s Phil Connors escaped from his metaphysical prison Hollywood kept repeating Groundhog Day’s premise in film after film. There was Edge of Tomorrow, with Tom Cruise stuck in the same sci-fi battle over and over. There was Happy Death Day, a slasher about a girl who has to solve her own murder in order to undo it. There was Source Code, and Before I Fall, and Naked, and Happy Death Day 2U, and many others. It’s shocking no one has made a Groundhog Day about a day in the life of a Hollywood executive trying over and over to get another rehash of Groundhog Day off the ground.
Still, I must confess that I like a lot these movies, and I liked Palm Springs too. None of them are as good as the original, yet I find these time-loop movies are generally very well-conceived and thought through — because they have to be in order to make infinite variations of the same day work. There’s no noodling in a time-loop movie; figuring it out on the day with improv won’t fly. They need to be created with care and precision.
Even if Nyles is a bit of a dope, Palm Springs is smart about him, and about the emotions someone in his or Sarah’s position might feel. (It helps that Samberg and Milioti work so well together onscreen.) This might not be a revolutionary story, but as Groundhog Day’s various imitators have taught us, there’s a certain amount of pleasure in repetition.
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