What if every day was exactly the same and you couldn’t break free of it? (No, I’m not talking about quarantine.) In “Palm Springs,” a Sundance Film Festival romantic-comedy that was released on Hulu in July, Nyles (Andy Samberg) and Sarah (Christin Milioti) try to answer this question.
Their journey is set against the backdrop of a California desert wedding after both find themselves repeating the same day over and over again. The film, which broke the record for biggest sale at Sundance by 69 cents to Hulu and Neon in a joint deal, provides new takes on the “Groundhog Day” premise by adding more characters to the time loop and entering the romantic comedy genre with physics-based solutions and very unglamorous leads.
Directed by Max Barbakow, written by Andy Siara, and produced in part by Samberg and the rest of comedy trio The Lonely Island(Akiva Scaffer and Jorma Taccone), the film may hit home a little too closely for those watching in isolation from the rest of the world. All in all, the film provides a memorable viewing experience. At just 90 minutes, it packs in all it can to provoke thought (what’s with the dinosaurs?), laughter and shock without becoming overwhelming or dragging, even with the repetition of its premise.
The two main characters are both attending a Palm Springs wedding on November 9 — Nyles as a guest and the boyfriend of a bridesmaid, and Sarah as the maid of honor to her sister, Tala (Camila Mendes). After Nyles saves Sarah from giving a speech at the reception, they discover Nyles’ girlfriend cheating on him in the bathroom and then escape to the desert to hook up.
However, they’re interrupted when Nyles is shot with a crossbow by Roy (J.K. Simmons); Nyles runs into a glowing cave, warning Sarah not to follow. Of course, she does, before waking up the next morning in bed to discover it is November 9 again.
“It’s one of those infinite time loop situations you might have heard about,” Nyles explains to Sarah on the first day she wakes up in the loop.
Nyles, who has been in the time loop for so long he’s forgotten how much time has passed, explains the mechanics of it: Every time you go to sleep or die, the loop resets and you wake up in the exact same spot you did the morning before. Yesterday is today, today is today, tomorrow is today.
Sarah tries everything: driving home to Texas, intentionally colliding with an 18-wheeler and living a perfectly selfless day, but to no avail — she cannot escape the time loop. She finds herself giving up and spending her time hanging out with Nyles, who spends most of his time drinking beer in a Hawaiian shirt, yellow board shorts and sunglasses on a pizza floatie.
As the two spend more and more time together, exploring the area or pranking the unsuspecting people around them, they develop a strong connection that’s tested in many ways throughout the film as they reckon with themselves, those around them — including Roy, who Nyles brought into the loop when the two were high and now periodically seeks revenge — and the loop itself.
“Palm Springs” does a lot of things right, but its best quality is that it allows Samberg and Milioti to shine from beginning to end. Milioti’s performance gives viewers everything they need to know about Sarah from the start as every squint, smile or sentence conveys multitudes.
Samberg has a surprising amount of depth for a romantic comedy lead as he goes from speaking eloquently about life and pain, to asking to “cut in” on Tala and Abe’s (Tyler Hoechlin) first dance, all while wearing a black tie over his Hawaiian shirt. Even though not a lot matters in an infinite time loop, “pain matters — what we do to other people matters,” he says to Sarah. Samberg creates a character that’s not only lovable, but someone with complexity that also doesn’t always adhere to the repetitiveness of a time loop.
Nyles’ character is more challenged than complemented by Sarah’s, but the pairing of the two provides an infinite (pun absolutely intended) amount of possibilities. Sarah is described as a bit of a screw-up and is not without her mistakes during the course of the story, but her character is overall a strong, independent and bold female lead that doesn’t need Nyles, but instead chooses to have him in her life. Both Milioti and Samberg are able to show a wide range of emotion that pulls viewers into their characters’ minds brilliantly to feel the multitude Nyles and Sarah feel.
Their relationship is made of loud and quiet moments, heated and soft exchanges, deep laughs and a lot of jokes. Both are deeply flawed, and while the film doesn’t excuse or redeem them in the way most romantic comedies strive to with troubled characters, “Palm Springs” provides a catalyst for change that feels genuine, even if the science to back up a glowing cave and time loop isn’t the most solid.
While Samberg and Milioti’s performances whisk viewers away to a fully realized world of flower crowns, pools, crossbows and somewhat cheesy footage of space, they can’t change the inevitable: While the plot of “Palm Springs” doesn’t leave many questions unanswered, there’s an obvious end to the story that not even a rom-com as strange as this one would stray from.
But the film isn’t all about the end. Instead, it holds the viewer’s attention in the present moment and doesn’t let it go until the very end. Although the physics of the time loop is a little bit of a head-scratcher, the inevitable rom-com ending gives the audience more to focus on and enjoy.
While “Palm Springs” might resemble real life’s current repetition, the film truly feels like an escape to the California desert even if it’s watched from the couch. Samberg and Milioti are electric both together and apart, and with a supporting cast that adds to the experience at the perfect moments, “Palm Springs” is a film I wouldn’t mind getting stuck in a time loop watching.