At this point, the “Help, I’m trapped in a time loop!” premise has become a Hollywood staple — don’t forget that we have not one, but two Happy Death Day movies out there to enjoy. The concept has become prevalent for good reason, as it presents an easy-to-understand structure combined with a good dose of wish fulfillment, allowing the protagonists to work on their flaws while literally perfecting their lives. The granddaddy of these films, 1993’s Groundhog Day, is largely interested in the existentialist aspects of such a phenomenon, and its romantic comedy subplot is all about the lovers overcoming the obstacle of the time loop in order to be together. Palm Springs, the latest addition to the time loop sub-genre, tweaks the formula ever so slightly but significantly: this time, There’s more than just one person trapped in a loop. It’s a choice that not only makes for some great gags but also allows the film to more fully be a classic, character-based romantic comedy.
A typical aspect of time loop movies is that the day the characters are trapped in is an unenviable and obnoxious one, and Palm Springs doesn’t disappoint in that department, being set at a mushy wedding in the titular location. Nyles (Andy Samberg) is the burnt-out boyfriend of one of the bridesmaids, and his general irreverence (attending the wedding in a tacky tropical shirt and shorts) as well as his subtle chivalry impresses the bride’s sister, Sarah (Cristin Milioti). The two hit it off quick, and are moments away from hooking up — when a mysterious man (J.K. Simmons) clad in a military stealth outfit and sporting a bow and arrow appears, and chases Nyles to a nearby cave in the desert. Concerned, Sarah follows Nyles despite his attempts to stop her, and after she walks into a mysterious golden light — whoops, guess who’s joined the time loop?
Co-writer and director Max Barbakow is essentially making his feature debut here, while co-writer Andy Siara is the showrunner of the underrated (and similarly quirky) show Lodge 49, yet Palm Springs has Samberg and his Lonely Island cohorts Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone’s fingerprints all over it. The freedom of the time loop premise makes it possible for Nyles and Sarah to indulge in some outrageous and surreal activity, any irreverence that occurs easily justified by the fantastical circumstances. As such, Palm Springs is frequently hilarious, blending character-based comedy with some ridiculous setpieces and gags. The cast are the MVP’s in this, with Simmons (who should really be regarded as a comedy all-star by now), Meredith Hagner (as Nyles’ philandering girlfriend) and Dale Dickey (as a matter-of-fact barfly) being particularly notable.
Of course, the movie belongs to Samberg and Milioti, and it’s on the strength of their performances and chemistry that the movie works as well as it does. Like the film’s central premise, Nyles and Sarah are familiar types, but unique enough to feel fresh and not rote or stale. They’re both similar levels of trashy, but it’s quickly clear that that’s due to their predicament as well as their disillusionment with life — the two were stuck metaphorically before they ever got stuck literally. In addition to their characters being intelligently written, Samberg and Milioti’s chemistry is pleasingly effervescent, and the two manage the difficult task of both making one hope that they end up together while rooting for them individually, regardless of who they might be with.
Palm Springs earns its place alongside films like Groundhog Day (and, yes, Happy Death Day) in the way it treats its characters and central premise with the exact right tone. Barbakow and Siara bring a welcome progressiveness to the movie, separating it morally and politically (if not tonally) from the ‘80s party romcom that it evokes at times, with a focus on sex positivity and an eschewing of stereotypes. As far as the science-fiction/fantasy element of the story, the filmmakers couldn’t care less — there’s a great montage where Sarah uses the time available to her to become an expert on quantum physics, and that’s about the extent of it. However, Nyles and Sarah’s (and anyone else’s…) predicament is taken seriously enough to be emotionally resonant. At first, inside the loop, the two initially decide that life is meaningless. Yet they, and the film, ultimately discover that there is meaning in whatever you wish to give meaning to—a tacky wedding, a relationship (especially marriage!), immortality, or a giant magical cave. The film may feel a little frivolous at times, and never attempts to go too far with its premise. Even so, Palm Springs is a movie that’s a delight to get stuck inside for a while.