Review: With perfectly matched stars, ‘Palm Springs’ finds the crazy joy in repetition
Whether through mere coincidence or some eerie disturbance in the universe, there are two new movies this week featuring characters who have been cursed to live forever.
One of them is “The Old Guard,” a moody existential thriller about a group of warriors who die frequently but always come back to life. The one up for review today is “Palm Springs,” a breezily entertaining romantic comedy about a pair of misfits who die frequently but always come back to life. I smell a promising crossover sequel — who wouldn’t want to see Charlize Theron take Andy Samberg on a boozing-and-killing spree? — though it would require a few conceptual tweaks. Time passes swiftly in “The Old Guard,” sweeping up its characters in the inexorable forward march of history. By contrast, the same day repeats itself again and again in “Palm Springs,” trapping us in a desert getaway where life has come to a sun-drenched standstill.
There are admittedly worse places to spend limbo, as Nyles (Samberg) and Sarah (Cristin Milioti) will soon discover. Neither one of them is thrilled to be at the Palm Springs destination wedding of Sarah’s angelic younger sister, Tala (Camila Mendes). The black sheep of her family, Sarah drinks and bumbles her way through the nuptials, only to find herself thrown off-balance — in ways both charming and mildly annoying — by Nyles, a suave goofball of a guest who navigates the festivities with light-footed ease. Is it just Sarah, or does Nyles have some kind of sixth sense, as if he knows in advance everything that’s going to happen?
Well, not everything. (Keep your eye out for a terrific jack-in-the-box performance from J.K. Simmons.) But Sarah gets the answers she seeks when she follows Nyles into a desert cave that night and suddenly wakes up in bed the next morning — only it isn’t the next morning; it’s the same morning as before. The day of the wedding is repeating itself, and the only ones who seem to realize it are Sarah and Nyles — who, in one of the script’s cleverest touches, has already been stuck here for God knows how long. Lazily summing up the plot for Sarah’s benefit, he notes, “It’s one of those infinite-time-loop situations you might have heard about.”
Indeed, you might have. An ingenious debut feature for the director Max Barbakow and the screenwriter Andy Siara, “Palm Springs” has the crack comic timing and pop-savvy sensibility you would expect from Samberg and his Lonely Island collaborators Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone. (All three are credited as producers.) It knows its target audience has likely seen “Groundhog Day” a few dozen times and may have a passing familiarity with more recent infinite-time-loop stories like “Edge of Tomorrow,” “Before I Fall” and the dazzlingly intricate Netflix series “Russian Doll.”
Sarah and Nyles might have seen a few of them too, which is why a lot of the usual exposition — and potentially tedious repetition — can be reduced to shorthand. Taking a page from “Groundhog Day,” Sarah initially leaps to the conclusion that a day of perfectly selfless behavior will get her out of this nightmare; alas, no. She tries a few other escape routes — a long drive home to Austin, a few suicide attempts — only to have Nyles tell her each time that he’s tried everything and has finally made peace with the matter of their eternal entrapment. Since they’re stuck here together, he suggests, shouldn’t they just relax and enjoy the view?
And so they do, and “Palm Springs” makes it easy to share their enjoyment. You can see where the story is headed, and you don’t mind in the slightest. Sarah and Nyles turn out to have a lot in common, including a sick sense of humor, and their centerpiece montage is a joyous celebration of risk-free mischief: Every recycled day promises a wild new adventure, whether they’re going on desert drives, goofing around in bars or devising ways to freak out the oblivious wedding guests. (They’re played by terrific actors including Peter Gallagher, Dale Dickey, June Squibb and Meredith Hagner, doing her utmost with the walking-punchline role of Nyles’ actual girlfriend.)
Soon enough, of course, Sarah and Nyles realize there’s no one they’d rather spend this pointless existence with than each other — for a while, anyway. Barbakow and Siara have effectively fashioned their Palm Springs purgatory into a metaphor for a young relationship, where everything seems wonderfully strange and new until doubt and tedium inevitably set in. The inevitable conflict is in some ways a philosophical one: Sarah is tormented by past wrongs and doesn’t see a way forward without addressing them. Nyles, who’s been stuck here for eons, cares only about the present, since moving forward doesn’t seem to be an actual option.
There’s a familiar gender dynamic at work here, and “Palm Springs” can be read, admiringly or critically, as a romantic comedy in which a woman has to expend a disproportionate amount of emotional and intellectual energy to push her boyfriend to a place of bare-minimum maturity. This dynamic is both reinforced and subverted by the casting: Samberg, amusing as ever in his designated role as the thinking millennial’s man-child, may be the big-name draw here, but he is eclipsed at every turn by the terrific Milioti, a versatile actor who won a Grammy for the Broadway show “Once” and turns out to be the movie’s secret weapon. It’s terrific that that she gets both the story’s emotional high point and its purest, giddiest moment of comic anarchy.
At times I found myself wondering if this stretch of Coachella Valley desert were being presented as some sort of inverted Eden, where it’s Adam who exposes Eve to the curse of eye-opening, shame-inducing knowledge — and where Eve effectively spends the movie trying to find her way out of that (man-)cave. Maybe that’s too tortured a reading — but then, for a movie this fleet and funny (it’s a snap at 90 minutes), “Palm Springs” is surprisingly ripe for metaphorical plucking.
Some of those metaphors are surely accidental. The movie premiered earlier this year at Sundance, one of the last major film festivals to be held before concern over the COVID-19 pandemic set in. Arriving now at a moment of mass quarantine, Barbakow and Siara’s vision of stasis and isolation can’t help but take on suggestive new layers. Up until the unpredictable final scene, you may wonder if you’re meant to side with Nyles, resigned to an impossible situation, or with Sarah, determined to see light at the end of the tunnel if she has to blast the tunnel open herself. All of which forces me to revise my earlier statement: If there’s anyone I want to see cross cinematic dimensions and join a league of Theron, it’s her.
Rating: R, for sexual content, language throughout, drug use and some violence
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Playing: Van Buren Cinema 3 Drive-In, Arlington; De Anza Mission Four Drive-In, Montclair; De Anza Rubidoux Drive-In 3, Riverside; Paramount Drive-in, Paramount; Vineland Drive-In, City of Industry; also available July 10 on Hulu
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