Nearly four months into a nationwide quarantine, it’s easy to feel as if you’re stuck repeating the same things day in and day out. Wake up, eat, sit in front of the computer, and take plenty of walks to help maintain your sanity.
Naturally, the perfect movie to emerge in the midst of this seemingly never ending monotony is one where its characters suffer the same repetitive fate. But what if reliving the same day over and over again wasn’t all bad? That’s where “Palm Springs” enters.
We’ve seen the infinite time-loop movies play out before, most iconically in 1993’s “Groundhog Day.” As a result, comparisons to the Bill Murray classic have surrounded director Max Barbakow’s feature debut, but those analogies come across as lazy and sloppy, considering just how much “Palm Springs” does to move the subgenre forward.
From it’s initial embrace of the romantic comedy to its surprising emotional depth there’s not much overlap between “Palm Springs” its time-loop predecessors, and thanks to an expert-level of self-awareness, Barbakow and Co. are able to avoid succumbing to a number of genre tropes along the way.
On November 9, wedding-goers descend upon a lavish desert oasis in Palm Springs, California to celebrate the marriage of Tala (Camila Mendes) and Abe (Tyler Hoechlin). As guests fill the resort, an unusually carefree Nyles (Andy Samberg) – donning a Hawaiian shirt and neon swimming trunks as opposed to the traditional suit and tie – commandeers the reception and gives a rousing toast honoring the happy couple. But there’s something off about Nyles… From the way he moves around the dance floor avoiding collisions to the startling level of detail throughout his speech, it’s like he knows something the others don’t.
This blend of charm and peculiarity grabs the attention of Sarah (Cristin Milioti), Tala’s sister and maid of honor, and the two immediately hit it off. After Nyles reveals to Sarah that he is somehow aware of the infidelity of his Instagram influencer-level-cringey girlfriend, Misty (Meredith Hagner), the two run off together for a wild night in the desert. And man, does it get wild.
Moments before hooking up, Nyles is pierced by an arrow, and an angry hunter (J.K. Simmons) chases him into a mysterious cave where the two vanish. Whether it’s terror or curiosity – or both – Sarah follows the two into the cave, and suddenly it’s November 9 all over again.
Turns out Nyles has been trapped in the time-loop for longer than he can even remember, hence the perfect awareness of everything going on around him, but Sarah takes a bit of time to adjust to her new reality. Neither death nor sleep can save her from her fate, and once she comes to this realization, the two embrace their new life together. After years (Decades? Centuries?) alone in this infinite loop, Nyles finds a new purpose with Sarah by his side, and reliving the same day over and over suddenly doesn’t seem too bad.
If you’ve seen the trailer for “Palm Springs,” you know what you’re getting yourself into as far as the general premise goes. The time-loop is well-documented in the teaser, and the subsequent shenanigans are, too. As a result, there’s no time wasted once the film actually gets started. Within 15 minutes, Sarah has joined Nyles in the never ending cycle and the groundwork is set.
This self awareness is what allows the film to so effectively explore the characters and their emotional beats later on in the story. Of course Sarah goes through the obligatory stage of denial spending a handful of days trying to escape the loop, but the story doesn’t dwell on this phase like other films in the genre do. Instead, it breezes through the more generic plot points of time-loop films in order to add new levels.
“Palm Springs” does a lot of things right, but the number one place where the film succeeds is in its leading duo. The chemistry between Samberg and Milioti is truly off the charts, as Nyles’ carefree and dopey spirit works as the perfect foil to Sarah’s disbelief and bluntness. It’s easy to imagine a couple like this finding each other in real life, thanks to the way one balances the other so well.
But for all the hype surrounding Samberg as the film’s headliner, “Palm Springs” is Milioti’s movie. That’s not meant as a slight on Samberg – he’s excellent here – but after this, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Milioti finally earn a few major leading roles. Known as The Mother from the final season of “How I Met Your Mother,” or maybe for anchoring the beloved “USS Callister” episode of “Black Mirror,” Milioti had yet to really catch on in a breakthrough role. Now, that’s changed.
When “Palm Springs” decides to make the shift from absurd rom-com to exploring deeper emotional baggage and the relationship between Nyles and Sarah, Milioti carries much of that weight. It’s clear Sarah has something to hide, and Milioti expertly displays the balance between infatuation and reservation. For a film based so much in absurdity, “Palm Springs” feels shockingly grounded in reality when it comes to its characters and the relationships between them.
Along the way, Samberg transitions from the style of acting he’s known and loved for in order to test the waters as a dramatic performer, and for the most part, he succeeds. Nyles’ growth from the film’s first act to its last is significant, and Samberg effectively portrays that change while still maintaining the same playful spirit at his core.
Fans of Samberg know him as the epitome of goofiness – from The Lonely Island to “Brooklyn 99” and beyond – and while this rom-com opts to venture into some heavier moments, it’s certainly not a complete departure from his natural foolishness. There are still plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, gags and general hilarity to satisfy more traditional Samberg lovers, too.
From the outside, “Palm Springs” may look like another generic entry into a category of films that often end up more alike than anyone would care to admit, but that’s not the case. Thanks to the leading duo’s undying charm and a self-aware and inventive story, the result is a fresh take on a genre that never ceases to entertain.
Without much on the film horizon and the year’s best comedy right in front of you, it might not be a bad idea to rewatch “Palm Springs” over and over again.
“Palm Springs” is available exclusively on Hulu July 10.
Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Raleigh, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.