Synopsis: Look, we’ve all seen Groundhog Day, right? Yeah. It’s that.
1. Ok fine, I’m being slightly facetious with the synopsis. But there is no denying that if I told you that Palm Springs was a romantic comedy centred around the premise of a constantly repeating day, Groundhog Day would be the first thing that came to mind. To Palm Springs’ credit, it is well aware of this, with Nyles (Andy Samberg) even hand-waving his situation as ‘one of those time loops’ with the full knowledge that Sarah (Cristin Milioti) and the audience have at least a passing familiarity with Groundhog Day, or at least other movies of its ilk. (1) Palm Springs does differentiate itself in two important ways. Firstly, it begins in medias res, with Nyles having undergone the loop so many times he has started to forget details of his life before the loop. Secondly, it creates two (eventually revealed to be three) loops, with both Nyles and Sarah going through the same day together. This has the added side effect of fixing one of Groundhog Day‘s most icky implications – that one person is essentially mining information to create a one-sided relationship with another – which Palm Springs actually cleverly alludes to in its plot. In this way, writer Andy Siara and director Max Barbacow have fashioned not just one of the most creative riffs on a classic movie, but also the best romantic comedy since 2017’s The Big Sick. In the awful shitstorm that is 2020, it clears the low bar of being the best movie of the year.
2. Part of what makes Palm Springs such a joy is that it runs head-on into the philosophical and existential conundrums of living a single day again and again. What possible meaning could there be in such an existence? What is the most ethical way to engage with other people? Do concepts like ‘past’ and ‘future’ matter when one exists purely in an eternal present? Don’t get me wrong though, Palm Springs is far from a joyless slog. Instead, the movie has a deftness of tone that allows it to tread the thin line of handling such weighty issues without falling into a pit of ponderousness or despair. There is a real sense of ‘one must imagine Sisyphus happy’ about this movie, which acknowledges the inherent meaninglessness of its characters’ existence only to posit it as a kind of eternal, unrestrained freedom. More impressively, it even sells the idea that morality can exist in such a universe, with Nyles stating that he does not cause hurt because it would have lasting consequences for him, even if others forget the next day. This is heavy, heavy shit, and for a 90 minute rom-com to delve into such concepts without abandoning its comedic principles is impressive indeed. Both Barbacow and Siera know exactly how to chase the bitter with the sweet, with judicious scene construction and editing always ensuring that the movie teeters exactly on the edge of darkness without tipping over.
3. It also really helps when your cast is good. Andy Samberg is doing his thousandth variation on ‘slacker goofball man-child with a heart of gold’, but one does not get typecast if one were not good at said role, which Samberg unsurprisingly is. More surprising though, is the fact that he manages to imbue Nyles with a fair amount of pathos and weariness, and really sells the sense of a man thoroughly resigned to his fate. JK Simmons is his usual wonderful self in a minor supporting role, and gets in a nice little monologue about accepting the little pleasures in life. The real star of this movie though, is Cristin Milioti, who has joined TUURM (The Unfairly Underrated Rachel McAdams) in the top tier of my ‘Inexplicably Not Bigger Stars’ list. (2) Milioti gives such searing, eye-catching work that it would rank as one of the year’s best even in a ‘normal’ year. It is the rare performance that threads the needle between ‘actor’ and ‘movie star’ – with Milioti selling the character’s rich inner life and conflict, but also delivering pure megawatt charisma. With any luck, this is a breakthrough for her, and proof that she can carry a bigger movie on her own.
4. Palm Springs is the rare movie that could afford to be longer. While I appreciate brevity, the film somewhat rushes its middle portion by compressing much of the development of its central relationship into montage. While the montage of repeated days is de rigeur (going back to Groundhog Day) for this kind of movie, Samberg and Milioti have such wonderful chemistry that I could not help but feel a little cheated by how comparatively little time the audience was given with them before they are separated for the third act. One or two additional fleshed out scenes of the pair just talking or interacting with the world around them would have been greatly appreciated. Also, there is a big ‘showstopper’ scene in a magical realist vein that just does not hit me as much as the filmmakers thought it would. I get what they were trying to do, but it only creates more unnecessary questions and does not really add much to the mix. I would rather have had more Samberg/Milioti shenanigans instead.
5. Perhaps the reason behind Palm Springs’ appeal lies in the fact that it is released at a time when people do feel like they are living the same day over and over again, thanks to quarantine and the spectre of COVID-19. It would, however, be a disservice to say that it is simply a movie for the times. Rather, Palm Springs is a film that stands on its own as a piece of well crafted entertainment that also happens to be a mini treatise on existentialist philosophy. Unlike Groundhog Day, which took place in a karmic universe laser-focused on the moral improvement of one man, Palm Springs sets itself in a godless universe where the only meaning we can find is rooted in the connections we create with other people. This is a lesson that we all need to hear, no matter the time and place, and Palm Springs delivers it with aplomb thanks to the wit, charisma, and talent in front of and behind the camera.
- Shout out to Edge of Tomorrow and Russian Doll, the best most recent movie and TV show respectively to utilise this conceit.
- The final entrant in that list is TUURM’s Mean Girls colleague Lizzy Caplan. You will notice that they are all women, because it’s very easy for male actors in Hollywood to get by on being mediocre.