A fresh, fun, and inventive spin on the “Groundhog Day”-esque time loop narrative, “Palm Springs” is a winning comedy that combines a goofy sense of humor with genuine heart.
Andy Samberg stars as Nyles, a guest at the destination wedding of Abe (Tyler Hoechlin) and Tala (Camila Mendes). Attending the nuptials with bridesmaid Misty (Meredith Hagner), Nyles appears strangely aloof about the proceedings. Sporting a Hawaiian shirt and swim trunks, he disinterestedly moves through the reception as if knowing exactly what’s going to happen next and how every guest will behave. He crashes the toasts to deliver a strangely digressive, oddly philosophical speech that ends up catching the eye of the bride’s sister, Sarah (Cristin Milioti).
The pair head out into the desert to hook up, but before anything can happen a very angry man (J.K. Simmons) charges out of the desert and shoots Nyles in the back with an arrow.
Nyles escapes into a mysterious glowing cave, Sarah follows him, and suddenly wakes up back in bed.
With growing horror, she realizes that she’s woken up on the morning of her sister’s wedding, and the entire day has somehow reset. Tracking Nyles down to demand some explanation, she learns that he’s been repeating this day for quite some time — long enough that he admits to no longer remembering a life before the wedding. And there’s no escape: dying or falling asleep only results in the day starting all over again.
The narrative-feature debut of director Max Barbakow and writer Andy Siara, “Palm Springs” gets a lot of mileage out of the question at the heart of its story: what would you do with all the time in the world? There’s a fantastically entertaining montage as Nyles and Sarah explore their many options. They devise a choreographed dance routine, hijack a plane, hang out and do mushrooms. The possibilities are literally endless. Things get more than a little weird, but in that weirdness, Nyles and Sarah start to fall for one another.
There have been a lot of stories about characters fated to relive the same day over and over again. In some ways, the film is the familiar tale of a stunted man who has to get his act together and grow up. But the offbeat comedy and bizarre sensibilities of Siara’s screenplay go a long way, and they invest the premise with all the absurdity and tragedy it naturally evokes.
Samberg and Milioti are an appealing pair, making their characters’ cynicism oddly feel like the result of real people trapped in such bizarre circumstances together. They’re both searching for something that will make them truly happy. But Sarah’s desperation and eventual desire to seize control and move forward clashes with Nyles’ more apathetic acceptance, which, it becomes clear, is just a way to avoid his problems.
Barbakow and Siara find other ways to break free of the “Groundhog Day” formula. Unlike most versions of these stories, we never see any situation play out the same way twice, and the constant forward momentum keeps things feeling fresh. Having two people stuck in a loop together (an idea explored with a more macabre edge in last year’s Netflix series “Russian Doll”) adds an interesting wrinkle here. It allows us to see the premise play out both through the eyes of someone to whom this is all old hat, and someone who finds it new and completely terrifying.
The filmmakers clearly meant the story to function as a metaphor for the early stages of any relationship, when the future requires that things either evolve or grow stagnant. And pre-coronavirus, it was probably an effective one. But now, during quarantine life — with our days constantly blending together, doing the same things, seeing the same people while going nowhere — it just hits differently. The new context of our current moment adds an unintended, but poignant extra layer to this sweet and strange comedy.
(R), Directed by Max Barbakow
Now playing at the Vintage Drive-In and streaming on Hulu
Adam Lubitow is a freelance film critic for CITY. Feedback on this article can be directed to Rebecca Rafferty, CITY's arts & entertainment editor, at email@example.com.