Note: There is an early reveal in Palm Springs that the filmmakers have been careful in keeping out of the film’s advertising. But it is central to discussing the film and we will be dissecting it below. If you want to remain spoiler free, we would recommend that you go watch Palm Springs first and then come back to read this review.
Film can very often be a time capsule into the particular societal moment in which they were made. Whether they be William Wyler’s The Best Years Of Our Lives to Mike Judge’s Office Space, they speak and resonate with their contemporary audiences in a particular way that allows future generations to gain a deeper, mre empathetic idea of what life was like at that particular moment in history.
Palm Spring is one such film, though I doubt that the creative team behind the film had such ambitions. But between the time the film was shot in 2019 and premiered this past January at Sundance Film Festival and now as it is being released on Hulu and a small number of drive-ins across the country, society has substantially shifted thanks to coronavirus stay-at-home precautions that the comedy suddenly very much in harmony with the current zeitgeist.
Nyles (Andy Samberg) doesn’t seem to be too impressed with the desert destination wedding he is at with his girlfriend, who is the best friend of the bride. He moves through the day calmly detached from everything and only seems to come alive during the reception, where he makes an impression on Sarah (Cristin Milioti), the bride’s older sister. After Nyles shows Sarah that his girlfriend is cheating on him, the two head out into the desert to fool around but are interrupted by a crazy man (J K Simmons) who seems to be stalking Nyles with a bow-and-arrow. Sarah follows Nyles, now shot in the shoulder with an arrow, into a mysterious glowing cave, blacks out and suddenly finds herself waking up where she did that same morning.
Sarah rushes to Nyles for an explanation, who nonchalantly states, “This is one of those infinite time loop situations you may have heard about.” Nyles has been reliving the same day now for longer than he can remember and now Sarah is trapped in the loop as well. As they keep repeating the same day, the two find new and different ways to keep themselves from getting bored and in the process become closer to each other. But their are some complications from Sarah’s life pre-time loop that begin to rear their head and threaten their burgeoning relationship.
OK, yes, Palm Springs is definitely a jazz riff on Groundhog Day, Harold Ramis’s classic 1993 comedy in which Bill Murray’s weatherman character Phil relives the same day over and over until he becomes a marginally better person. And yes, Nyles and Sarah engage in a lot of the same style of we-don’t-care-about-the-potential-fatality-of-this hi-jinks. Audiences who have spent the last several weeks primarily confined to their homes and struggling to find things to keep themselves occupied can certainly relate to these attempts to find new ways to alleviate the boredom of living the same day over and over.
But where Groundhog Day was just one character in the time loop, Palm Springs ups the ante. Not everyone is going to react to this kind of situation in the same way and by introducing more than one character into the loop, the film gets to explore these different possibilities both on their own and when they come into dramatic conflict with each other. And here is where the film is just plain smarter than Groundhog Day‘s script allows that classic to be.
And while Samberg, Milioti and Simmons all turn in strong performances, it is Palm Springs’ script – by Andy Siara, though Smaberg’s Lonely Island cohorts most likely took a pass through it – that really fuels this film. As the story keeps looping back on itself, resetting to the morning, it keeps finding new permutations of the day’s wedding preparations as small changes in actions send all the other characters arounf Nyles and Sarah on different trajectories that help reveal their character and slowly build the complications that the couple will be forced to confront in the third act.
Another thing that Palm Springs has over Groundhog Day is the film’s philosophical arc. Groundhog Day definitely gives the impression that Murray’s Phil is repeating his day over and over for a specific reason – self-improvement. There is the implication that someone or something is controlling the loop he finds himself trapped in. But for Nyles and Sarah, there seems to be no controlling factor to their entrapment in the loop. It is just a capricious whim of fate – Nyles comments on their predicament “There is no God” at one point. It is as outside their own control as the emergence of the coronavirus and our own stay-at-home lifestyle feels like today. The only change and growth for Nyles and Sarah comes from within themselves; it is not forced upon them from without. And in that way, perhaps the movie is reassuring us that we can still forge our own destinies in the face of our own capricious, uncaring worlds.