I struggled for a long time with how to start this as we all know how this goes, the age old saga of the time loop movie and the reviews talking about in one way or another how they don’t live up to Groundhog Day or some movie of the sort that each person holds in reverence. The point is that everyone has a favourite and everyone has seen at least two films playing on the formula. This doesn’t even begin to roll in the number of TV shows that also embrace the, at this point, routine storytelling technique. Personally I’m an Edge of Tomorrow kind of guy, one who appreciates a bit of grit in among the comedy, but also I can’t help but take the opportunity to point people towards the TV version of 12 Monkeys which has one of the best time loop episodes of all time, one that ends with a twist that will knock the wind out of you. The point is, there is a lot to choose from and at a distance, Palm Springs looks like just another in a long line of rehashes. That is, until you watch it.
Opening on a seemingly banal day in the life of serial slacker Nyles (Andy Samberg) as he contends with self aggrandizing, insufferable girlfriend Misty (Meredith Hagner) and the issues that come with being invited to a wedding as a plus one, not knowing anyone and destined to sit in the back wishing for something interesting to happen. It feels all very 90s rom-com until Nyles starts doing bizarre things like giving speeches when nobody cares what he has to say or perfectly sashaying across the dancefloor to impress black sheep sister of the bride Sarah (Cristin Milioti). As the two spend the night together it becomes increasingly obvious that Nyles has lived this day before and pretty soon Sarah will find herself roped into the same loop searching for a way out or at least one that helps her avoid her mistakes. Its at this point that things get weird.
Despite its romance trappings and vivid colour palatte, Palm Springs feels like the antithesis to the films it has to credit for its existence. Here cynicism is embraced, not just as character traits for two lost people but also as a general feeling as Nyles and Sarah seem like the only two normal people in a world full of optimists, constantly looking for pots of gold at the end of the rainbow, with the two being the only people capable of realizing that finding a rainbow in the desert is nigh on impossible. Director Max Barbakow here plays with the best of both worlds, using the arid visual of the surrounding desert not only to trap its character in this perpetual bubble of self destruction but also to highlight the other colours they are missing, the highlights in a world Nyles is ignoring or Sarah is closing herself off to.
Instead of making it all about Nyles and Sarah, a couple in search of each other, one of Groundhog day’s main flaws, Palm Springs is about recognizing your own flaws and moving on from them. Andy Siara’s script doesn’t pretend that its characters can change but acknowledges that their is a difference between change and growth. Nyles is always going to be aloof but while Siara and Barbakow use Samberg’s comedic talents to tap this for much comedy in its entertaining opening, it turns sour quickly. In fact much of the comedy here has a bitter aftertaste only made more delightful thanks to Samberg and Milioti knowing that their characters at times are the joke. Despite the childish antics and expected time loop montages there is always a little bit of sadness to everything that happens, a painful realization that sometimes the same isn’t always a blessing but a curse.
It is this cutting realization that gives Barbakow’s film drive and while a supporting performance by an excellent JK Simmons as an unwitting victim of Nyles’ mindlessness provides most of the films genuine laughs, it is Samberg and Milioti’s chemistry that helps a film that could be a helpless exercise in moving through the depression of your early 30s sing with authenticity and genuine charisma. It might have plenty of films before it to thank but if there is one thing you can say about Palm Springs, its that it manages to subvert something expected to tell a story that comes pretty close to the listless nature of modern adulthood.