Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Hulu releases the film on its streaming platform on Friday, July 10.
There have been so many riffs on the “Groundhog Day” formula that it can sometimes feel like the movies themselves are stuck in an endless time loop, but each subsequent iteration has tweaked the original in some way. “50 First Dates” stripped away the unexplainable metaphysics of it all for a romantic comedy that was equal parts Adam Sandler and Oliver Sacks. “Edge of Tomorrow” added aliens, Tom Cruise, and “Gears of War” cosplay to the mix. “Before I Fall” applied Harold Ramis’ concept to teen anxieties, “Happy Death Day” added a horror twist, “Russian Doll” revitalized it with an episodic approach (what a concept!), etcetera etcetera ad infinitum.
And yet, despite “Groundhog Day” becoming a genre unto itself, Max Barbakow’s witty and wise “Palm Springs” is the first movie that doesn’t just apply that old formula to a new problem, but also fundamentally alters the basics of the equation. It’s a simple adjustment, and yet the difference feels as radical and transformative as pouring milk into a bowl of cereal, or adding Waluigi to “Mario Tennis” (there had been plenty of tennis games before, but holy shit). What if, instead of relegating one person to a cyclical purgatory they’re forced to repeat over and over until they learn the error of their ways, you relegated two people to the same pocket of the Twilight Zone?
Oh SNAP. The mind boggles at the implications! Imagine spending the rest of your meaningless existence with the same person. Imagine being stuck in a perpetually static purgatory where meaningful change can only be seen through the eyes of the sad bastard suffering alongside you. Imagine being surrounded by a million strangers in a world of limitless possibilities, and winding up with the same one every night because of one fateful choice that seemed like a good idea a million years ago. Imagine… being married.
But Nyles (Andy Samberg, doing great sad boy Andy Samberg stuff) and Sarah (Cristin Milioti, a delightful force of comic violence) aren’t married — they don’t even know each other — and the ridiculously bleak desert wedding where they first meet wouldn’t make anyone want to rush down the aisle. Nyles is there with Misty (Meredith Hagner), his sociopathic Instagram model of a girlfriend. He despises her, and she doesn’t think about him at all, but who can tolerate being alone? A little misery might be worth a reliable wedding day. But Misty isn’t the reason why Nyles is depressed (“we’re all just lost” he mopes to anyone within earshot), or why Samberg exudes a disaffected Bill Murray vibe even before the premise reveals itself. That might have more to do with the fact that he’s woken up at this wedding a million times before, and he’s running out of ways to pass the time. The first masterstroke of Andy Siara’s relentlessly clever script is that it starts with its lead character stranded in limbo, thereby cutting out all the tedious work of getting him there.
Not that Sarah is up to speed. The older sister of the bride (“Riverdale” star Camila Mendes) and the black sheep of her family, Sarah is sick of herself even before she gets stuck. She doesn’t seem to be all that charmed by the super disaffected guy who wore a Hawaiian shirt to a fancy wedding, but the fact that Nyles doesn’t know her is a good enough reason to make out with him under the stars. Things only go wrong when she asks him to take off his pants; that’s when a grizzled Navy Seal-looking dude named Roy (J.K. Simmons) shows up in hunting armor and shoots Nyles full of arrows. Sarah’s hook-up escapes into the strange orange glow of a nearby cave, and — despite his warnings — she follows him into the light. The next morning, Nyles isn’t the only one who remembers the previous night. You can imagine how things evolve from there.
Well, you can and you can’t. The overarching plot of “Palm Springs” isn’t especially novel, but each scene is just sweet, funny, and demented enough to feel like a little surprise. At first, Siara’s script — produced by The Lonely Island and loaded with their irreverent humor — is delightful for how it beats you to the punch, running through all of the hilarious things an Andy Samberg type might do to amuse himself in a deathless world (the brutally sarcastic way he says “Yeah, I’ve never considered the multiverse” is proof enough you’re in a very specific dimension of comedy). But if Nyles has been stuck there long enough to have mastered every possible move, Sarah changes everything by introducing a code-breaking new variable.
You know that jolt of excitement when you’re bored of playing a video game against the computer and suddenly the words “A NEW CHALLENGER HAS ARRIVED” flash across the screen? The first half of “Palm Springs” essentially bottles that moment up and serves it to you for 45 minutes straight, as the film always manages to sidestep expectations, and raise questions that it will double back to address later. Sure, spending an eternity with a woman as funny, unpredictable, and intractably alive as Sarah doesn’t seem like the worst thing in the world for a desolate bachelor — especially since the chemistry between Samberg and Milioti is off the charts — but why do these movies always happen to unhappy people? How might someone with love in their life react if they were in that situation, and knew they would never get to realize their dreams or see their children grow up? Let’s just say that Barbakow’s film is curious enough to ask.
If anything, “Palm Springs” might be too curious — too drunk on the innumerable possibilities of its premise to narrow its focus to a select few. This is a smart and focused slice of pro-marriage propaganda at a time when so many of today’s kids seem ready to relegate the very concept of monogamy to “ok, boomer” status, but a good time loop movie always leaves you wanting a few more “what ifs.” That feeling is extra pronounced here because of how Barbakow’s film aspires to the same droll profundity that made “Groundhog Day” into such a milestone.
The movie always seems on the brink of biting off more than a super energetic 90-minute comedy can chew, and the sheer momentum of the storytelling doesn’t give the story time to slow down. A certain velocity is required for a film to remain this funny and bittersweet, and Barbakow doesn’t risk disturbing that balance. Maybe that’s for the best — “Palm Springs” just isn’t as magical whenever Nyles and Sarah aren’t together.
On the other hand, the movie is so touching and sharp about the ideas it chooses to spotlight that — like a loving marriage — the joy it provides is more than enough to make up for the paths it doesn’t travel. Less overt than something like “The Good Place,” but playing in the same arena of seriocomic pop-losophy; less weighty and immense than “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” but similarly concerned with the value of romantic partnership, “Palm Springs” offers a novel way to explore why the decision to share your life with someone can be more than just a band-aid placed atop a gaping wound of loneliness. Sure, “Groundhog Day” arrives at essentially the same place, but — start to finish — this winsome bauble of a movie is uniquely eager to embrace the idea that life isn’t quite as limitless as it seems.
There are only so many things you can do in this world; only so far you can go before you’re back where you began and the whole thing starts over. As Nyles whines after we first meet him: “It’s always today.” And he’s right. But seeing your life reflected back at you through someone else’s eyes can make it that much easier to appreciate what happened yesterday, and look forward to tomorrow.
“Palm Springs” premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival in the U.S. Competition. Hulu and Neon will release it later this year.