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‘Palm Springs’ Will Throw You for a Loop

The feature starring Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti is much more than a mere riff on ‘Groundhog Day’

Hulu/Ringer illustration

“We’re already sick of each other. … It’s the best.” That’s the monogamy-tinged moral of Palm Springs, an inventive and ultimately affecting variation on the time-loop comedy formula perfected on the first try by Groundhog Day and revived in inspired, genre-mashing fashion by Happy Death Day (and with unfortunately diminishing returns in its sequel). In each of these films, the universe rewrites its own rules of space, time, and causality in order to teach an unhappy protagonist a lesson; in Palm Springs, Nyles (Andy Samberg), a “pretentious sadboy” stranded at a destination wedding in the Coachella Valley with a cuckolding girlfriend (Meredith Hagner), could certainly use an existential pep talk.

The first twist in Andy Siara’s screenplay is that Nyles’s circular purgatory isn’t going to end in a revelation of self-improvement a la Bill Murray’s cynical weatherman in Groundhog Day. The second is that Nyles isn’t the only prisoner here—a detail that contributes to Palm Springs surprising comic and emotional potency. Nyles’s fellow exile is Sarah (Cristin Milioti), who begins the film oblivious to the Twilight Zone scenario in her midst: As the elder sister and maid of honor for golden child Tala (Camilla Mendes), she’s resigned to having a bad, drunken time at the outdoor nuptials. When Nyles begins hitting on her, she’s baffled by the graceful, almost preternatural way that he navigates the wedding and its guests, as if he’s hitting marks in a stage play—which, of course, he is. These opening scenes—which initially play the supernatural aspects of the story close to the vest before unleashing them with the sort of absurdly on-the-nose humor native to Samberg’s Lonely Island brand—evoke the climax of Groundhog Day as if from Andie McDowell’s point of view, except that Milioti isn’t just a reactive foil. She’s a wonderfully adept, deadpan comedian whose 180 from glazed, seen-it-all boredom to bug-eyed horror as she stumbles into some sort of Lovecraftian extradimensional portal is quite hilarious.

The humor in Groundhog Day and Happy Death Day stems from expertly staged and edited repetition-compulsion—the replaying of scenes with minor variations that catalyze a sense of déjà vu. Director Max Barbakow isn’t a crack-shot satirist like the Lonely Island’s Jorma Taccone, whose three-film run of Hot Rod, MacGruber, and Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is as good as a Hollywood comedy director has managed this millennium. Palm Springs looks and feels like TV, but it’s still swift and disciplined, getting excellent mileage out of the script’s witty relationship to conventions. Because Nyles and Sarah are on the same wavelength, they’re uniquely liberated from the time-loop template, consistently abandoning the hotel—and the wedding altogether—in favor of wild side adventures that work against our expectations of cloistered claustrophobia.

These errands are blissfully consequence free, since no matter what havoc the pair causes—or no matter what injuries they incur—they’re fated to be reset the next morning. (Palm Springs timeliness as an inadvertently quarantine-themed rom-com is real.) The result of this slight rewrite of the rules is significant. Instead of feeling aligned with a character who’s one step ahead of his immediate reality, we’re observing the burgeoning solidarity between two people who are growing increasingly cozy in their own private rut: a solid metaphor for the solipsistic rush of falling in love, which can reduce other people to the status of bystanders and, in many ways, make time stand still.

It’s been said many times that Samberg is the natural heir to Adam Sandler, except that he’s a more credible rom-com lead. Notwithstanding the cheesy sweetness of The Wedding Singer or the ecstatic romanticism of Punch-Drunk Love, Sandler’s attempts to seem smitten often played as shtick. Here, Samberg conveys the idea that Nyles, for all his smug hipster superiority to everybody else in his orbit, loves Sarah, and Milioti returns the favor, eschewing simple cool-girl posturing for something more furtive and complex. Palm Springs is, by design, a surpassingly silly movie—one that finds time for anatomically detailed amateur tattoos of ejaculating penises, slapstick violence involving Tasers, hallucinations involving dinosaurs, and J.K. Simmons hunting Samberg through the desert with a bow and arrow (I won’t spoil why). But what makes it likable is the idea that something is at stake between its two leads, whose reactions to the situation—and to each other—begin to diverge in interesting ways, a bit earlier than expected.

Usually, it’s a drag when a comedy starts gesturing in the direction of having a point; usually, the funniest movies are the ones that don’t feel obligated to literally switch gears, and find ways to integrate lunacy and profundity on a molecular level. Not even Groundhog Day escaped this trap, defaulting to an explicitly redemptive tone in its coda. (Who really wants to see Bill Murray domesticated anyway?) Palm Springs doesn’t transcend its predecessors, yet its final bout of encapsulating life and love isn’t enervating—it’s humane and well acted. And while the story’s resolution is probably illogical on the plane of quantum mechanics, it’s satisfying in a way that more naturalistic rom-coms often aren’t.

Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.