There aren’t actually that many time loop movies out there relative to the host of other repeated plots and concepts in the cinematic world and yet it’s hard to find one that does something unique with the premise. Incredibly, the science fiction idea has grown out of that genre and infiltrated almost every other, and yet it often ironically feels like the same thing repeating with slight variances (with exceptions). There’s a reason everyone refers back to Groundhog Day whenever a time loop movie gets made. Thank goodness, then, for Palm Springs.
The movie knocks the time loop genre out of its own redundant loop. While it still features plenty of the standards — like people doing ridiculous things because there are no consequences and a time loop montage to get you through a whole host of repeated days quickly — it adds in just enough of a shift to the normal standard to make it feel like something wholly original. It’s also, on the side, a fantastic romantic comedy full of heart and humor that avoids saccharine emotions for actual meaning at almost every turn.
Director: Max Barbakow
Release Date: July 10, 2020 (Hulu)
Palm Springs appears to start out more of a conventional rom-com than anything else. Sarah (Cristin Milioti), the black sheep of her family, is at the wedding of her sister at a resort in Palm Springs when she meets Nyles (Andy Samberg), a charming misfit who seems to know exactly what to say and do. The two hit it off and are about to hook up when a man shoots Nyles with a crossbow prompting him to crawl into a glowing cave. Sarah follows and, in doing so, is suddenly caught in the same day over and over again alongside Nyles and the man who shot him, Roy (J.K. Simmons). Roy shows up every so often to murder Nyles for trapping him in the time loop with him on one of Nyles’ earlier trips through the day.
By inserting multiple people into the time loop Palm Springs can cleverly skip over a lot of the stuff that makes other time loop movies redundant. It provides a quick and easy way to work through the rules of the loop, of course, but it also means you can explore the effects of something like this on multiple people and deliver multiple outcomes outside of “be a better person. Nyles has been in the loop for so long that he’s become jaded about life and yet he’s still having fun with it. Roy is bitter and angry and Sarah acts as the chaotic kick in the pants between these two dichotomies. It allows the romance between the two to play out over a much more thoughtful commentary on life’s meaning and who we spend time with.
It should be noted that if you don’t like Andy Samberg than the film won’t play as well for you. The actor has a unique brand of comedy and it comes through here as well, though not as much as in Brooklyn 99. That said, he and Milioti are stellar on-screen together as she can easily keep up with his quick humor and wit wonderfully. The pair feels genuine, which is the key to the best romantic comedies, and as their standard rom-com arch (meet>dislike>like>love>argue>love) plays out against the time loop it feels earned, not forced. There’s genuine chemistry between the two and gets at the root of what made Groundhog day the classic and something like Netflix’s Love, Wedding, Repeat a dud: it isn’t about the concept, it’s the characters.
That couldn’t be clearer in the case of Simmons’ character, who appears infrequently in the film thanks to the fact that he drove from home to the wedding that day. It’s an incredibly little ripple in the movie that adds just that extra layer of thought and humor (and violence) to the whole proceeding. His touching, humorous, and insightful monologue at the end of the film, just before killing Nyles again in a trash can, is a wonderfully written lesson on finding the simple pleasures in your life.
Palm Springs isn’t afraid to get a little trippy and out there as well. There’s an odd motif of some dinosaurs wandering around the California desert and the direction keeps things feeling just off-kilter enough. Unlike other time loop films it doesn’t treat the loop like some ethereal occurrence we’ll never see but instead a physical, glowing cave. That not only makes the humor more absurd but also creates a fourth character: time itself. The outcome being there’s not only a moral lesson to learn but a physical barrier to overcome. The film’s final result isn’t just “be a better person” but instead “find what drives you.”
That’s the key to Palm Springs. It isn’t, in the end, about falling in love, finding yourself, or discovering the meaning of life. Its time loop is about living life with what you’ve got. Near the end, Nyles struggles with finally possibly escaping the time loop because he’s scared about living the life he has, not making a better new one. The obvious shift in Palm Springs might be the inclusion of multiple people in a time loop but the one that matters the most is the shift in focus on what life and love mean.