Dir: Max Barbakow. Starring: Andy Samberg, Cristin Milioti, Peter Gallagher, JK Simmons. 15, 90 mins
It’s an odd quirk of Hollywood cinema that one of its goofiest concepts has proven to be such fertile territory. The Groundhog Day-style infinite time loop has been rearranged and reinvented to surprising success. Edge of Tomorrow sprinkled in sci-fi battles; Happy Death Day featured a knife-wielding serial killer; and Netflix series Russian Doll used Natasha Lyonne as its secret weapon. Now we have Palm Springs. The film colours inside the lines of the romantic comedy, while making one small, but crucial change – here we get not one, but two protagonists stuck reliving the same day, one of whom has been there for a while. And so Max Barbakow’s debut film, written by Andy Siara, offers a new way to look at a familiar format.
Sarah (Cristin Milioti) is hovering somewhere at the back of her sister’s (Camila Mendes) wedding reception, staged in the middle of the Californian desert. She’s the liability – the one who “drinks and f***s around too much” – so figures it’s best to keep her distance. Joyful bliss was never her style. She suddenly spots an oddly mannered guy (Andy Samberg’s Nyles) floating across the dancefloor. He’s dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and swimming trunks, and just delivered a showstopper of a toast despite having almost no relation to the couple (he’s the bride’s friend’s boyfriend). He seems so in the moment that it’s almost like he can predict what happens next…
You guessed it: Nyles has been here before. Many times. One mystical cave later, Sarah is stuck with the same fate. But Palm Springs is interested in more than offering its leads a rekindled joie de vivre – it’s about the very way we choose to live our lives. Nyles, having long ago given up any hope of escaping his curse, has fully embraced the mantra of “living in the moment”. There’s something freeing about that level of nihilism, where both past and future lose all meaning. Sarah embraces the philosophy, which allows the film to lean into its absurd sense of humour.
The film was partially produced by Samberg and the members of his Lonely Island comedy trio, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone – known for their Saturday Night Live appearances and 2016’s Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping. Their freewheeling, self-consciously silly style is apparent here, especially in the sequences of Sarah and Nyles going full carpe diem. They steal a plane and break out dancing in the middle of a biker bar, dressed in double-denim and red bandanas. It doesn’t matter whether they die or mortally embarrass themselves. It all resets at the end of the day.
But this isn’t a case of producers-as-auteurs, since both director Barbakow and writer Siara are able to establish their own voices, especially as Nyles’s lifestyle comes into question and something darker emerges. Eventually, he confesses that he’s been stuck in a time loop for so long that he’s completely forgotten his old life. He can’t even remember what he used to do as a job. Palm Springs asks the question that’s rarely put forward by these stories: how much are we an amalgamation of our past memories and our hope for what’s to come? Sarah knows that the future is the place where she can make amends and move on from the past actions that haunt her.
Samberg, for all his boyish charms, knows when to quieten those impulses, allowing his shoulders to slump and his heart to sink. Milioti, meanwhile, has a wonderful way of creating the illusion of confidence, while letting us in on the fact Sarah could shatter at any moment. And when these two share a look, it’s like they’re searching for the answers in each other’s eyes. Luckily, they have all the time in world to find it.