Two slackers get stuck in a time loop at a desert wedding.
Directed by Max Barbakow
Starring Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti
Review by Jon Kissel
What goes with the territory of being a character stuck in a time loop is a self-deprecating resignation, and while all the aforementioned movies have leads with that trait, Palm Springs’ Andy Samberg might have the most of it. ‘Dignity’ is not a trait one would associate with the perpetual man-child, who I can now confidently say is a better Adam Sandler than Adam Sandler. Samberg plays Nyles, introduced at the start of a day failing to have sex with his intolerable younger girlfriend and wiling away the day on a pizza-shaped pool inflatable. He’s attending a wedding that evening, and he moves skillfully through the crowd despite his constant drinking and severe under-dressing. While giving an impromptu wedding toast, he locks eyes with the sister of the bride, Milioti’s Sarah, and they spark up a relationship based on their shared fatalism and disdain for wedding pageantry. The night is interrupted when an arrow suddenly goes through Nyles’ shoulder, fired by Roy (JK Simmons). Before Roy can finish the job, Nyles crawls into a glowing cave and tells Sarah not to follow him. When Nyles wakes up the next morning, or rather the earlier morning, Sarah soon interrupts his poolside contemplation, now stuck in the same predicament that he has been in for an indeterminate amount of time.
Behind Samberg’s constant willingness to embarrass himself is an insistence that the laugh is the most important thing, moreso than any kind of self-image or projection of oneself, and in Palm Springs, this is taken to the logical conclusion, except swap out laughs with low-level comfort. After living through this particular day enough times to forget what his job is, Nyles has settled into a place where static relaxation is the be-all, end-all. We don’t see his attempts at raw hedonism, where he’s had sex with several wedding participants or gone on drug benders, but there’s a weariness in his poolside languor that makes them easy to imagine, like he’s an aging rock star who’s satisfied in the sex and drugs department. He’s beyond caring what anyone thinks of him, including pre-time-loop Sarah. This changes when she enters his loop, and a playmate who can share his experiences reinvigorates him both for some actual variety in his life but also as a mentor who can potentially help Sarah avoid some of his mistakes.
My only prior experience with Cristin Milioti is in a forgettable first wife role in Wolf of Wall Street and an unforgettable wife role in the second season of Fargo. Her character in Fargo has terminal cancer, and at a point late in the season, a teen who’s just discovered philosophy tells her that Camus said that life is absurd because we know we’re going to die. In Fargo, she forcefully refutes this idea but if that character was transplanted to Palm Springs, where one knows they aren’t going to die, she might indeed find the absurdity. The best parts of this film are of Sarah surrendering to absurdity, and this should be a star-making role for Milioti. She’s out-Samberging Samberg with the aforementioned mullet-fluttering, a likely-improved bit that precedes a dance sequence which she further accentuates with yelps and flourishes on the choreography. The subsequent montage of sheer silliness, with its perfect tattoo joke, is so funny, a culmination of writing, directing, and editing brought to life by her and Samberg.
Outside of Palm Springs’ considerable humor is the expected well of thought and emotion that, since Groundhog Day, these kinds of movies must contain. The outbursts of nihilistic violence that Groundhog Day doesn’t take seriously are treated quite seriously by Palm Springs, with Samberg stressing that not only is the pain real, but the moral injury is real if one goes on killing sprees. While that feels like a direct response, the romances in the two films don’t share much in common at all, and Palm Springs likely wins out in that area. The frame of the film is Nyles, or Nyles and Sarah, floating aimlessly in the pool, a throwback to The Graduate’s similar shots and an evocation of that film’s willful resistance to joining the rest of the world. Palm Springs ultimately comes down to the predictable, everlasting comfort radiating out of that shot, and the unpredictable but more potent feeling that might come from breaking out of the loop. Samberg and Milioti convincingly occupy both poles of that argument, and they have the chemistry to make either answer right in its own way.
First time director Max Barbakow and first time writer Andy Siara combine for a tremendously successful debut that pays homage to what it’s pulling inspiration from and separates itself from the obvious comparisons. This is certainly the funniest film of 2020 and one of the better ones in general. There are surely lots of clues and Easter eggs planted within this delightful film, and a notable one is that it takes place on an endless November 9. The last memorable one of those was in 2016, when I was tremendously hung-over following the election of Trump. After checking the stock market to see the skyrocketing prices of private prison companies, I spent a chunk of the day on Emory’s campus, attending a lecture for which the speaker was not prepared. I don’t see how that choice of date in Palm Springs wasn’t purposeful, and if I had to attribute meaning to it, perhaps the film is a metaphor about wallowing in misery versus breaking cycles. If a film that so wonderfully contains mullet-fluffing can also prompt me to sign up to be an Election Day poll worker, then that’s just more evidence of Palm Springs’ myriad successes. B+