In an age where thousands of films get made every year, there’s often a push to make something different. This is how you end up with rom-coms like “Love Wedding Repeat,” a recent Netflix film that ruined its characters with a complicated multiverse plot, or with low-quality Adam Sandler movies with fantastical storylines. Most of these attempts to reinvent the wheel falter under the pressure of their own storylines, trying to pull something meaningful out of a jumble of half-baked ideas.
Delightfully, “Palm Springs” was not one of these.
If “Palm Springs” is a water park ride, it starts off as a lazy river, meandering its way through exposition like a typical wedding movie. You meet Nyles (Andy Samberg, “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”), a relaxed but disgruntled wedding guest, and Sarah (Cristin Milioti, “How I Met Your Mother”), one of the bridesmaids for the bride, her sister Tala (Camila Mendes, “Riverdale”). After the two meet, it only takes about 10 minutes for the plot to explode as the roller coaster takes off: Nyles is stuck in an infinite time loop, à la “Groundhog Day,” and he accidentally pulls Sarah into it.
The filmmakers’ ability to successfully pull off a plot of these proportions is a miracle, and even more so that they were able to fit it into a tight 90 minutes. And yet, “Palm Springs” is brilliantly done, held together by a strong ensemble cast and a well-written story. It doesn’t hurt that the film is produced by The Lonely Island, an absurdist comedy troupe made up of childhood friends Samberg, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone. Having The Lonely Island team as producers brings plenty of their zany comedic choices — a fight ending with a fork stuck into someone’s face, for example, could’ve come straight out of one of their digital shorts on “Saturday Night Live.”
Like many rom-coms, the success of the film is dependent on its two leads; in this case, Samberg and Milioti are an excellent match. As Sarah is trying to understand what’s going on, Nyles has long collapsed into the monotony of the time loop — a juxtaposition that is chaotic but effective. Both Samberg and Milioti’s performances are charming and compelling, subtly displaying their distress and helplessness without ever losing their comedic timing. As the time loop continues, the two come to a nihilistic consensus, choosing to give up and waste time. This leads to a number of delightful montages of their time in the loop: relaxing in the pool, making reckless choices, choreographing dances and more.
It doesn’t hurt that this film came out during quarantine, where, for many of us, every day is the same as the day before. Nyles’s and Sarah’s choices to waste time feel especially real when your own life has been somewhat monotonous for months. For them, the days are only broken up by their drunken adventures or the occasional appearance of violent and vengeful Roy (J.K. Simmons, “Whiplash”). Still, the mental transition as the time loop continues is visible in their appearance — both of them become increasingly, but subtly, disheveled over time. Truthfully, this is a film that’s made to watch more than once: Fleeting moments end up being far more indicative that there’s more going on. In a movie where the same day repeats over and over again, I didn’t think there would be any spectacular twists, but there are — and they completely change how the rest of the film is viewed.
“Palm Springs” premiered at Sundance this January, and Neon and Hulu paid almost $22 million for distribution rights, breaking the previous sale record at Sundance. Clearly, they saw something special in it. Maybe it was the stellar cast. Maybe it was the unique take on a time loop movie. Maybe it was Nyles’s and Sarah’s choreographed dance sequence in matching outfits that was possibly the best thing I’ve seen all year. There are a lot of reasons to love this film and appreciate slipping into a moment of incredible fast-paced bliss. “Palm Springs” is a film that balances delicately on the line of what works — if any of the pieces were different, it would have fallen apart, but as it is, it’s funny, fresh and beautifully done.