Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get caught in one of those infinite time loop situations you might’ve heard about
“Every day is exactly the same.” -NIN
If this were any other year, Palm Springs would fill a familiar role on the movie calendar: the hot ticket Sundance acquisition that underwhelms during its theatrical run. Six months later, as the film debuts on Hulu, Palm Springs, about a man caught in a time loop repeating the same day, plays to a new familiarity: the repetitive, sameness of being housebound for months. Palm Springs is amusing, but it has an edge to it. By embracing the darker aspects of its premise Palm Springs speaks to the current moment in a way that feels authentic and, surprisingly, hopeful. It’s, uh, not the experience you expect from an Andy Samberg comedy.
Samberg plays Niles, a “pretentious sad boy” as described by another character. Taking a break from the happy, goofy, and aloof characters of Brooklyn NIne-Nine or Popstar, Samberg is working in a tenor audiences last saw in Celeste and Jesse Forever. Decked out in swim trunks and a Hawaiian shirt, Niles has a sadness that only comes when life has beaten you down. He’s been stuck reliving the same day, attending the same wedding with people he doesn’t know or like for an untold amount of time. Niles has the hangdog look of someone who gave up the notion of hope long ago. He’s punching the metaphorical clock each morning and doing what he has to do until the day ends and he gets to do it all over again. He wears underwear under his swim suit. But the saddest thing about Niles is that he’s accepted his fate. His acquiescence to living a life full of hollow experiences and an inconsequential existence is startlingly relatable.
Just as the film is settling into its riff on Groundhog Day, writer Andy Siara and director Max Barbakow tweak the formula enough to supercharge the story. Instead of leaving Niles in limbo by himself, he gets a partner in Cristin Milioti’s Sarah. At first blush Sarah comes off just as depressed and aimless as Niles. They have an easy connection right off the bat, but when the sparks die down and the friction arises, the characters become more interesting. The same goes for Samberg and Milioti. When Niles and Sarah are getting along, Milioti’s performance doesn’t quite work, primarily due to the script, which saddles Sarah with some truly cringeworthy moments (including getting a tattoo of a penis). But when the characters are at odds, Milioti and Samberg are at their best.
Running a snappy 90 minutes, Palm Springs doesn’t waste much time. Siara’s script is clever and efficient. Every setup has a payoff that satisfies. The premise is pure sci-fi, but it doesn’t get bogged down in its own mythology or technical mumbo jumbo. Many time travel/time loop movies have stumbled trying to over explain an inherently paradoxical premise. Palm Springs moves quickly so that the audience’s focus remains on the characters. There are plenty of amusing bits in the movie, including some that border on glibness (there’s a Happy Death Day-style suicide montage), but Palm Springs hits hardest when it’s about two people trying to break out of their stupor.
Early in the movie Sarah and Niles commiserate over the solitariness and meaninglessness of their lives. They’ve been stripped of their agency. Everything they’ve done has led them to this moment together. The film gets two things right about human existence: we’re all in this together, but we have to decide for ourselves what makes our lives worth living.
Sarah and Niles dominate the screen time and do the bulk of the thematic heavy lifting. They’re the heart of the movie. But it’s JK Simmons who provides Palm Springs its soul. He plays Roy, an amusing adversary of sorts to Niles. Roy is a dynamic character and his secrets are best learned in the moment while watching the film. But, in a few scenes, including the best one, Roy crystallizes the film’s themes and Simmons does excellent work.
Since we’ve been quarantining and trying to keep ourselves and those around us safe, the days have all blurred together. It feels like just getting to the finish line of each day is the goal. It’s draining. We all feel it. The new normal sucks. Palm Springs gets that. It also gets that even when we feel like our agency has been taken away, it’s still ours. We can take it back and make tomorrow better than today.
Palm Springs is available to stream on Hulu July 10th from Neon Films