REVIEW: Palm Springs (2020)
Ever since Harold Ramis made a splash with his Bill Murray-starring time loop drama, Groundhog Day, nearly three decades ago, plenty of movies and TV shows have tried to recreate the same formula while trying to put their own spins on it, some to brilliant results (Edge of Tomorrow, Russian Doll), and some others, not so much. The latest to jump in on the bandwagon is Palm Springs, a high concept rom-com directed by Max Barbakow and produced by The Lonely Island that was first premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Though it doesn’t entirely reinvent the sub-genre, Palm Springs has enough to revitalise this well-worn formula while at the same time inviting us to ponder about the meaning of life and relationships.
Written by Andy Siara of Lodge 49, Palm Springs begins and ends with Nyles, a slacker doofus that Andy Samberg has been playing for countless times before. When we first meet him, he’s about to attend the destination wedding of Tara (Camila Mendes) and Abe (Tyler Hoechlin) in (yes, you probably guessed it) Palm Springs, as the plus one of his shallow millennial girlfriend Misty (the scene-stealing Meredith Hagner). But Nyles doesn’t look like he’s enjoying the wedding, nor is he interested in the presence of his girlfriend. He’s just there doing what he does best: drinking alcohol, a lot of it by the way, and throwing some nihilistic remarks to all the guests. When one of the groomsmen asks him how he’s doing, Nyles, with his laid-back attitude, answers, “Yesterday, today, tomorrow — they’re all the same.” And little do we know, Nyles isn’t just throwing those words out meaninglessly, he’s actually being literal about it.
Yes, it’s later revealed that Nyles has been stuck for a very long time inside a time loop where today is yesterday, and tomorrow is today. Too long, in fact, that he can’t even remember what he did before this whole fiasco. At first, Nyles tries to escape the loop, but when he discovers that whatever he does, he always ends up waking up in the same morning, he eventually gives up and starts to not care about anything. He even embraces it with open arms, thinking that nothing really matters anymore as long as he stays inside the loop. But of course, things get complicated when Sarah (Cristin Milioti), the older sister of the bride and the black sheep of the family who “drinks too much and likes to f**k around,” gets stuck inside the time loop too after a makeout session gone wrong — thanks to a mysterious man named Roy (J.K. Simmons doing his best with limited screentime) tries to kill Nyles with an arrow.
With Sarah desperately attempting to get out of the time loop while Nyles, on the other hand, tries to make Sarah embracing her new fate, what follows after is full of shenanigans. But it’s at this point that Barbakow and Siara manage to mine most of the movie’s comedic moments, relentlessly observing Sarah’s fish-out-of-water storyline, then throw in some high level of chaos and levity with an unexpected turn of events along the way. There’s even a wonderfully edited montage where we see Nyles and Sarah doing obscure, not too mention crazy, things to distract their minds from the trouble that they’re in. But to mention what it is in detail would only spoil the fun.
While the humor remains excellent until the very end, what eventually elevates Palm Springs from just another time loop drama and an observational comedy of two messed-up people living their lives carelessly in a world without consequences into a movie that is far more emotionally resonant is the main subjects that Siara tries to address in his script: relationships and the meaning of life. Through the central relationship between Sarah and Nyles, which first begins as two strangers then evolve into friends and eventually a couple, Palm Springs shows us that in a life where everything feels repetitive and meaningless, what will make it more exciting is the presence of someone we can truly care about. For Nyles, that someone is Sarah. And the same goes for Sarah.
Yes, using time-loop as an allegory of how monotonous life and relationships can get is a little too heavy-handed, but it doesn’t make Palm Springs any less impactful. If anything, this is what makes the movie such a blast in the first place. It never shies away from the outlandish nature of its premise, and instead, it embraces all the insanity that comes with it. In a lesser movie, Sarah and Andy’s attempt at escaping the time loop would without a doubt be the main focus of the story, but that’s not the case here. Palm Springs cares about the characters as much as it does about the plot and its machinations. And that’s for the better. Of course, at some point, a quantum theory will be uttered by the characters as they’re trying to make sense of their new circumstances, but never once does the mechanics of the time loop eschew the characters’ development that the lead actors have built deliberately with their amazing performances.
Samberg, who’s been mastering this kind of role pretty much his whole career, is unsurprisingly phenomenal at showcasing Nyles’ nihilistic approach to life while smoothly manoeuvering himself in every comedic moment. And while doing so, he provides Nyles with vulnerability rarely found in his other performances. But it is Milioti who, in the end, steals most of the spotlight. She brilliantly oscillates between exhaustion and wonder; frustration and sadness, carefully exposing the wound and guilt that her character is hiding from everyone while still remaining hilarious throughout the movie. Together with Samberg, Milioti creates combustible chemistry, perfected even more with a Kate Bush needle-drop towards the final moment of the movie. You will want to root for this couple while you’re watching them.
In the end, Palm Springs, with its “love is what will save us all” message and its depiction of personal growth may not give a whole new life into the time-loop sub-genre. But it doesn’t need to, as nearly every aspect of the movie — from the direction to the writing — is perfectly executed and enough to make the formula exciting again, especially with the two powerhouse talents drilling the movie’s poignant moments from start to finish. It’s truly one of the greatest, if not the best, comedies of the year so far.
Directed by: Max Barbakow
Written by: Andy Siara
Cast: Andy Samberg, Cristin Milioti, J.K. Simmons