‘Palm Springs’ review: ‘Groundhog Day’ in the California Desert

Andy Samberg swaps sitcoms for the Coachella Valley in a touching time-loop romance

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    Palm Springs might not be the only time-loop movie made in the COVID era – hi, Christopher Nolan – but it’s certainly the most relatable. Which of us doesn’t know what it’s like to experience the exact same 24-hour period over and over, whether via cinema or pandemic lockdown?

    Other time-loop movies might drop in references to Groundhog Day as shorthand, but Palm Springs goes so far as to skip over any protracted sequences where it slowly dawns upon Nyles (Andy Samberg) or Sarah (Cristin Milioti) that they’re waking up trapped in an endlessly replayed single day. In the film’s simplest and perhaps greatest innovation, Nyles knows before the audience does, as the story joins him an untold number of days, possibly years, into his predicament. He’s able to quickly explain everything to Sarah, who has just been accidentally ensnared into this same loop – the day of her sister’s wedding, also attended (and attended, and attended…) by Nyles.

    Palm Springs
    ‘Palm Springs’ gets its long-awaited release in the UK this week. CREDIT: Amazon Prime Video

    The speed with which the movie establishes its loop could be read as a hedge in the face of predictability: Palm Springs, like Groundhog Day and several other time-loop movies before it, is at least partially a romantic comedy, and even stars another Saturday Night Live alumnus, with Andy Samberg swapped in for Bill Murray. But it also approaches the material from another direction than that spiritually-minded classic. Nyles and Sarah have a conversation about acts of pure selflessness 30 minutes into the movie, and it becomes clear that they need to find a path other than simply bettering themselves. And its story about two people who feel stuck – and uncertain about how they can (or want to) get themselves unstuck – might resonate particularly strongly with audiences as they emerge from quarantine. You may find yourself nodding in recognition when Nyles resigns himself early on: “Today, tomorrow, yesterday… it’s all the same.”

    The movie itself, though, keeps the inventions coming at a tight clip (and credits roll well before the 90-minute mark). Director Max Barbakow understands that montages are the lifeblood of time-loop movies, and uses them cleverly, cataloguing Nyles’ sexual conquests; his deaths at the hands of Roy (J.K. Simmons), a wedding guest who Nyles accidentally brought into his loop; and, eventually, the whimsical time-killing bonds formed between Nyles and Sarah, as they steal airplanes, play pranks, and stage their own real-life music videos. Eventually, they start smiling to themselves when they remember where they are each morning.

    While their relationship’s central obstacle has a more metaphysical bent than most, Nyles and Sarah must also confront a familiar set of conundrums involving whether attachments are ultimately fleeting, and whether it’s preferable for a couple to feel like the only two people in the world. Again, the movie zig-zags away from trite familiarity, this time with its actors. Like Murray before him, Samberg takes the opportunity to locate some additional soulfulness beneath his familiar persona, giving a performance that is both within his acting wheelhouse and a stretch into new territory. Even more emotional weight comes courtesy of the terrific Milioti, whose subtle expressiveness plays perfectly off of an SNL goofball hiding his pain.

    Like a lot of great recent romcoms, Palm Springs struggles a little with how to channel its bittersweet ambivalence and sharp sense of humour into a next-level ending. The movie comes out of the gate with a speed and charm that’s difficult to match. It’s fittingly self-reflexive, though, that the movie’s only real letdown comes after looping through so much fun.

    Details

    • Director: Max Barbakow
    • Starring: Andy Samberg, Cristin Miloti, J.K. Simmons
    • Release date: April 9 (Amazon Prime Video)
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