Riddle me this, gentle readers: If a movie opens at the start of a time loop, but it opens with a character who’s already been through however many multiple iterations of the time loop, does that count as opening in medias res?
Palm Springs is supposedly the latest joint from The Lonely Island, as if they were trying to pivot from comedy toward something more dramatic and high-concept (see also: Jordan Peele). In truth, while Andy Samberg headlines the cast, The Lonely Island are otherwise just producers here. In fact, the movie was chiefly masterminded by director Max Barbakow and screenwriter Andy Siara (both making their feature debuts here), who came up with the idea when they were classmates at AFI.
Our stage is set in a remote Palm Springs resort (actually shot in the LA area, reportedly for budget reasons), booked as the venue for the wedding of Abe and Tala (respectively played by Tyler Hoechlin and Camila Mendes). We open with Nyles (Samberg), boyfriend to one of the bridesmaids (namely Misty, played by Meredith Hagner). Nyles is fascinating in that he’s swings between “depressed and apathetic” or “confidently charming and carefree.” Either way, everything he does is apparently undercut by the attitude that nothing really matters.
Because — surprise, surprise — he’s lived through this exact same day before. Countless times, in fact.
Only this time, Nyles makes a pass at Sarah (Tala’s sister, the maid of honor, played by Cristin Milioti). Of course, it’s initially unclear as to whether this is the first time or the hundredth time he’s tried getting her into bed. Anyway, long story short, things go wrong and Sarah gets sucked into the time loop with Nyles. Hilarity ensues.
Thus Sarah is our audience viewpoint character, struggling to learn all the ins and outs of the time loop so she can break it. And she’s acting off of Nyles, who explains the established rules to Sarah (and the audience) because he’s already done everything he can think of to try and break them.
But then, would either one of them really want to go back to a world where they’d grow old and die? Where their actions have consequences? Hell, Nyles has already forgotten so much after so many lifetimes that he may not have a life to go back to, and Sarah might get to that point as well before the film is over. If (hypothetically) Nyles and Sarah really did succeed in finding a way out, would they take it? It’s a fascinating question, and of all the “time loop” movies out there, this is the first I’ve seen or heard of that even thought to consider it.
On one level, Sarah acts out of desperate optimism while Nyles acts out of jaded nihilism. On another level, this means that pretty much anytime something fantastic or extraordinary happens, Sarah freaks out while Nyles just grins and lets it ride. This makes for a surprisingly funny contrast.
From a more dramatic perspective, Sarah introduces something that Nyles has never really had in any of his prior time loops: An element of pleasant surprise. Sarah is the one element of Nyles’ entire day that is completely and totally unknown to him, every bit as unpredictable and uncontrollable as he is. Conversely, Nyles provides Sarah with a kind of stability — as this grand unknowable cosmic mystery degrades her sense of reality, at least she knows Nyles will be there for her to confide in (for better or worse).
Which brings me to the central theme of the movie: relationships. Specifically, it’s about our innate need to connect with other people — even share our lives with them — for as long as we’re hurtling together through a cold, unfeeling, mysterious void we were all plopped into for no apparent reason. Somehow, for whatever reason, we need someone to share the good times with, someone to get us through the bad times, someone to eat and drink and dance and party with.
To paraphrase a question I asked in a previous review, how much worse could loneliness possibly be if (as the poet said) hell is other people? Ask Nyles — he knows.
Oh, but this isn’t just a romance — this is a romcom. Obviously, the time loop conceit opens itself to any number of comical scenarios. We’ve got the standard “Groundhog Day” style hijinks (“Stop copying me!”), and we’ve got the gallows humor in the style of Happy Death Day or Edge of Tomorrow (that plane crash). But mostly, the humor stems from Andy Samberg’s own cheesy over-the-top brand of “anything goes” humor.
I’m not typically a fan of The Lonely Island, but their style of comedy is quite endearing here. For one thing, the adventurous and over-the-top jokes work well for a couple of characters who are free to do literally anything they want with no consequences, and they’re trying desperately hard to stave off boredom. For another thing, it adds to the romantic chemistry of our two leads — they’re clearly having so much fun together, it’s far more satisfying and credible to see them fall in love.
I mean, say what you will about Groundhog Day, that movie is undeniably a classic. But as funny as that movie is, imagine how much funnier it could’ve been if Bill Murray had someone to act against and play around with like Samberg and Milioti do here. The two of them are effortlessly charming, and it speaks volumes that Cristin Milioti has the comedic chops to hold her own against Andy Samberg in his own established wheelhouse.
Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention J.K. Simmons. I’m loathe to spoil too much about the character he plays here, but the magnificent bastard came to play HARD. Nobody else can deliver badass and hilarious to the cheap seats quite like J.K. Simmons.
Those are really the only three actors of note, however. Tyler Hoechlin and Meredith Hagner are passable as a couple of side comic characters, and June Squibb is sadly wasted on a red herring cameo role. Otherwise, this is very much a Samberg/Milioti/Simmons picture — and Simmons is only in three or four scenes!
It’s perfectly obvious that this film was built from the ground up to be produced quickly and on the cheap. As a direct result, there are a couple of effects scenes that don’t quite pop like they should, and the death gags are nowhere even close to what we got in, say, Happy Death Day.
(Side note: Palm Springs was reportedly made on a budget of $5 million. For comparison, Happy Death Day had a reported budget of $4.8 million, and its sequel had a reported $9 million budget.)
I can only assume that Palm Springs was held back by the relative inexperience of its debut writer/director team. Still, what Barbakow and Siara lack in experience, they make up in ambition, creativity, humor, and heart. This is a movie that offers surprisingly heady ideas and inspired twists on the tired “time loop” subgenre, all without distracting from the sweet little romantic comedy at its heart.
This is Andy Samberg at his finest, and Cristin Milioti needs to break out ASAP. Together, the both of them power a romantic comedy that’s genuinely both romantic and comical. This one gets a strong recommendation, absolutely worth your time.