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Andy Samberg Isn’t Reinventing Himself in ‘Palm Springs.’ He Didn’t Need To.

In the new film set to debut on Hulu, the former ‘SNL’ star shows off why he’s become a great leading man without changing what he does

Ringer illustration

“So I decided a while ago to sort of give up and stop trying to make sense of things altogether,” says Andy Samberg, in his new romantic comedy. “Because the only way to really live in this is to embrace the fact that nothing matters.”

“Well, then, what’s the point of living?” demands Cristin Milioti, his love interest. They’re barreling down a grim California highway; he’s riding shotgun, and she’s about to swerve their car into the path of an oncoming semi. “Well, we kind of have no choice but to live,” he replies. “So I think your best bet is just to learn how to suffer existence.” Totally a romantic comedy.

The movie’s called Palm Springs; in January, Hulu and Neon bought it at Sundance for the record-breaking sum of $17,500,000.69. That was the actual reported number. “I’ve done a lot of suicides,” Samberg adds, wearily. “So many.” Romantic comedy. As Milioti girds herself to swerve into the oncoming truck, he unbuckles his seat belt and leans forward, so as to ensure a quick death. “We can’t die,” he explains to his love interest. “But pain is very real.”

Palm Springs hits Hulu on Friday, its planned theatrical run vaporized, of course, by COVID-19. (Hollywood decided a while ago to sort of give up and stop trying to make sense of things altogether.) It’s a rom-com. Samberg plays a backstory-free Palm Springs wedding guest named Nyles, who is certainly dressed like the platonic ideal of an Andy Samberg character—Hawaiian shirt, swim trunks over boxer shorts, disheveled handsomeness—but is roughly 20 percent as whimsical, with a beer can non-whimsically attached to his hand roughly 80 percent of the time. Milioti plays Sarah, the hot mess maid of honor and sister of the bride; Nyles and Sarah are stuck in “one of those infinite-time-loop situations that you might have heard about,” as he wearily explains to her.

Meaning, no matter how the day ends—even with, say, their myriad violent deaths—they wake up unscathed and forced to relive the day over and over and over again. Meaning, it’s Groundhog Day, except now both prospective lovers are stuck in the loop, and the vibe is way grittier. Meaning, Andy Samberg, who comes off as America’s very recently dumped Internet Boyfriend, opens beer cans one-handed and says things like, “I felt everything I’ll ever feel. I’ll never feel anything again.” Very strange movie, grim but with radiant bursts of whimsy, or maybe it’s the grimness that’s radiant somehow, the amusing, deadpan way that the “Lazy Sunday” guy, the “Dick in the Box” guy, the “Jizz in My Pants” guy informs his love interest that he’s the antichrist. Seriously. “I am the antichrist,” says Andy Samberg, pausing to acknowledge an earthquake. “I’m just kidding. There is no god.”

Palm Springs is great. I very much hope it’s a sleeper hit insomuch as a $17.50000069 million Sundance acquisition can be a sleeper hit; I hope it’s Hulu’s answer to Netflix’s 365 Days. (If you don’t know, don’t ask.) What makes this movie work is that it satisfies the criteria inherent in the phrase Andy Samberg rom-com—the silliness, the sweetness, the lewdness, the WTF anarchy—but also pushes far past it, into genuinely unsettling territory. At one point we find Samberg standing in a giant blue suburban recycling bin, politely asking J.K. Simmons to murder him with a crossbow. (Simmons plays a fellow time-non-traveler named Roy whose cuddly-ominous vibe is equal parts Sam Elliott in The Big Lebowski, Sam Elliott in A Star Is Born, and Sam Elliott in Justified.) You won’t feel cheated by Palm Springs, genre-wise, but you will, in the best sense, feel ever so slightly challenged.

The best sense meaning that this isn’t Samberg making a super ostentatious comedy-to-drama pivot, like, say, Robin Williams in One Hour Photo, or Will Ferrell in Everything Must Go, or Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig in The Skeleton Twins. It’s still your old buddy Andy, doing distinctly Andy sorts of things. (A stolen plane, a dive-bar dance sequence, an excellent reading of the line “I used to be a bomb guy,” a hand job set to a 10,000 Maniacs song.) It’s just that now there’s a beguiling nihilism driving him, to the extent anything’s driving him at all.

This is not a guy who needs to fuss over his post–Saturday Night Live career arc, who needs to fret about his Range. As the world grows more fractured, more apocalyptic verging on nihilistic, more Digital Short–oriented, Samberg makes for a fine leading man to flourish in our endless-loop hour of total chaos, when we no longer need leading men (or leaders, or men) at all. As the world learned long ago, there was already plenty in the box.

It used to be that the big move for nascent SNL stars was to do an aspiring-blockbuster movie to see if one’s most beloved sketch-comedy character could hold the big screen for 90 minutes and, y’know, stand the test of time. (Wayne, yes; Pat, no; MacGruber, debatable.)

But here in the cursed summer of 2020, the big screen is no longer an operative concept, and anyway Samberg’s contribution to the show was not a mere collection of characters, but a whole format. From the moment “Lazy Sunday” hit YouTube in 2005, he was the goofball face of the viral-video revolution, constructing, with his high school buddies and Lonely Island cohorts Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone, a comedy-rap empire (“Threw It on the Ground,” still undefeated) that has expanded in bizarre and delightful fashion. Samberg is their fearless leader without ever getting all pompous about it or leaving his boys behind; these knuckleheads can do anything, even if sometimes they probably shouldn’t have tried.

And so he’s done hyper-broad doofus comedies both transcendent (2007’s Hot Rod) and disastrous (2012’s accursed Adam Sandler jam That’s My Boy). He’s done a medium-quirky romcom or two. (Celeste and Jesse Forever, costarring Rashida Jones and also from 2012, was far more conventional Sundance fare.) Since 2013, he has anchored the medium-heartwarming sitcom Brooklyn Nine-Nine, a lovely show that netted him a Golden Globe (I still love the way he thanks “everyone on my team”) and will presumably find some shrewd and sensitive way to contend with being a sitcom about police officers in 2020, whenever it returns, which is to say whenever the world around it returns to something approaching normal.

And if normality, too, is no longer an operative concept, then be grateful the Lonely Island reigns supreme, from the trio’s high-profile failures (I’ve had the Bin Laden song from 2016’s stupendous box-office bomb Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping stuck in my head for 24 hours) to its low-profile triumphs. Their bite-size 2019 Netflix goof The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience was confusing and fantastic and the most necessary sort of unnecessary. It is just the sort of guerilla operation primed to thrive in a post-genre, post-theater, postapocalypse climate, as potent over 90 minutes as it is in a mere 30 as it is in, like, five. What the hell is going on here? How did we ever live without it?

Even in the absolute best-case-scenario SNL pivots—Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids, say, or for that matter Bill Hader in Barry—there’s a sense that you’re watching someone very consciously expand his or her universe, chasing blockbuster status, chasing autonomy, chasing prestige. There’s a conspicuous Leveling Up vibe. But Samberg is Samberg no matter the format, no matter the scale, no matter the precise degree of darkness. Same guy, same goofy-ass grin, same titanically goofy-ass friends, same affable mastery of chaos. The randomness is a key component of the consistency; every new project is supposed to bewilder you, just a little bit.

Palm Springs is helmed by relative newcomers (director Max Barbakow, working off Andy Siara’s screenplay), and though the Lonely Island boys are coproducers, Schaffer and Taccone are otherwise noncombatants. But even at its most animalistic and nihilistic (the flammable pool, the bombed goat, the semitruck’s grisly reprise, the dozens of beer cans), there is a comforting through line, a coherence amid the quantum-physics flamboyance of it all. It’s a flex, but a low-key flex, a big swing where the mighty whoosh of the bat is a thrill in and of itself. It’s a surprise A-minus in a mundane B-minus-at-best streaming ecosystem that sure could use, quite frankly, a bomb guy.

Most crucially, though, this movie is not designed to make Andy Samberg a star, a bigger star, a thinkier star, a more critically beloved star. He is content. He is no longer trying to make sense of things, and his timing, as always, is excellent. A surrealist rom-com about two bewildered humans living the same day over and over and over again is quite effective here in July 2020, as comedy, as drama, as romance, as nihilism. Lucky for you, he can do it all.