It’s hard to write a review about Palm Springs, the Sundance mega-hit which broke the record for the biggest sale in the festival’s history, without inevitably mentioning the films that paved the way for its existence. From Groundhog Day to Edge of Tomorrow, to, most recently – and though not a film, probably the popularity of which made Palm Springs more possible – Natasha Lyonne’s Netflix series Russian Doll, the time code schtick is a tried-and-true trope that, when done correctly, can have timeless (sorry) effects.
In director Max Barbakow’s feature narrative debut, he keeps his and screenwriter Andy Siara’s take on the never-ending day genre feeling like it only came about, well, yesterday. The film follows seemingly careless slacker Nyles (Andy Samberg), as he wakes up on the day of his friend’s wedding in Palm Springs to his nagging girlfriend, Misty (Meredith Hagner). He lounges all day in the hotel pool and later shows up to the wedding in a Hawaiian shirt and shorts, cracking a beer during the ceremony and making a bizarre, impromptu speech to save the skin of Sarah (Cristin Milotti), the sister and maid of honour, who forgot she had to make a speech in the first place.
This encounter between the two causes them to bond (a regular “meet cute” if you will), engage in banter and various shenanigans and eventually attempt to sleep with one another out in the desert that night – that is, until a man shoots Nyles with an arrow to the leg. In his effort to escape, Nyles crawls his way into a cave, the back of which harbours an ominous, glowing light, while a horrified, confused Sarah follows behind him and he begs her not to. Once Nyles is sucked into the light, he wakes up in his bed just as he had the previous day of the wedding, and it becomes clear what’s really going on out in that desert. But when he goes for his hangout in the hotel pool, an infuriated Sarah emerges demanding answers. She’s been sucked into the time loop too, and now they’re stuck in it together.
As one might be able to surmise, the remainder of the film surrounds Sarah going through varying stages of grief in trying and refusing to accept that she’s stuck in a time loop, as Nyles, who’s been stuck in it longer than he can even remember, goes along for the ride – though eventually proving to be her foil. We also learn that the man who shot Nyles with an arrow is named Rob (J.K. Simmons), another guest at the wedding, who Nyles got accidentally sucked into the loop as well a while back, and who has had a less than amiable time accepting his fate.
Most of the framework of the film post-time loop discovery is fairly predictable: there’s an eventual montage of the pair engaging in debaucherous behaviour as they revel in their actions having no consequences, then slowly falling in love with one another in the process, the two of them reaching an impasse, Sarah eventually trying to break the time loop, and so on and so forth. But the film manages to be anything if not exceedingly charming, funny, and sweet to its core, still offsetting the saccharine rom-com conventions with a somewhat dark exploration of mortality and the human condition. Navigating suicide, suffering, nihilism, even the grey morality of committing acts of violence in a world where it doesn’t really matter, the film’s fixation on exposing human ugliness makes its particular portrait of romance feel strikingly unique – and also honest.
Beyond the darker take on a typically lighter genre, the performances from Samberg and Milotti are nothing if not utterly endearing, Samberg’s penchant for goofballism counterbalanced nicely with a bleak emptiness and pain; a genuine desperation for human connection that comes through and showcases Samberg’s eclectic talents. At the same time, Milotti is a sharp, charming pistol, whose chemistry with Samberg only works to prove Milotti as both a comedic and dramatic heavyweight, and J.K. Simmons’ brief appearances end up being some of the funniest and most sobering of the film. It should also be noted that comedian Conner O’Malley, though in a very minor role as a groomsman, steals every scene that he’s in.
Maybe it’s due to the crushing reality of everything else going on in the world, but the presence of a film like Palm Springs in the rather bleak offering of current releases feels particularly affecting right now. It has a sense of optimism that isn’t suffocating, a take on romance that acknowledges the darker side of human nature without sliding even closely into melodrama. An overdose of hopefulness during “these uncertain times” just becomes dishonest, whereas art that both recognises and embraces the company of hope and despair ends up coming off the most comforting. Right now, most mornings feel like waking up in a time loop, and Palm Springs provides a small seed of assurance that maybe there’s a way out of the never-ending day.
Palm Springs is available to stream on Hulu now
by Brianna Zigler
Brianna is a graduate in Film-Video and Writing from Penn State University with big plans and not a lot of planning. She loves horror, absurdism, Twin Peaks, is a die-hard Wes Anderson fan, and currently has almost 250 movies in her watchlist. Her favorite films are What We Do in the Shadows, A Serious Man, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Swiss Army Man, and Suspiria. You can follow her on Twitter @briannazigs