July 20, 2020
Rated ‘R’ for sexual content, language throughout, drug use and some violence.
Stars Andy Samberg, Cristin Milioti, J.K. Simmons, Peter Gallagher, Meredith Hagner, Camila Mendes, Tyler Hoechlin.
The idea of reliving the same day repeatedly has become a reliable trope of movies and TV shows looking for a fun way to subject their characters to some existential angst.
Movies such as 1993’s Groundhog Day play the premise for laughs. A sci-fi version of the time loop might put more emphasis on the causes of the phenomenon and how the characters can escape it, such as with 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow or the 1992 “Star Trek: The Next Generation” episode “Cause and Effect” (which aired nearly a year before Groundhog Day hit theaters). Still other uses can be for horror (the “Happy Death Day” franchise), or to solve a mystery (as in the TV show “Day Break”).
The often hiliarious, sometimes poignant Palm Springs, the latest effort from the Lonely Island comedy team, steers somewhat in between the comedy and sci-fi approaches to great effect.
Andy Samberg stars as Nyles, who continuously wakes up the day of Nov. 9 to attend a wedding in the California desert oasis town of Palm Springs with his girlfriend, the maid of honor. As he discovers she’s cheating on him, he feels completely unfettered to pursue whatever crazy hook-ups he can, knowing the day will reset. Eventually he fixates on Sarah (Cristin Milioti), the sister of the bride, and they run off into the desert to make out. When Nyles is attacked, however, he inadvertently leads her into a mysterious glowing cave that ends up trapping her in the time loop as well, much to her chagrin.
Nyles lays out the rules for her: If she returns to the cave, or dies, or falls asleep, the day resets. Having no desire to relive her sister’s wedding over and over again, she begrudgingly begins hanging out with Nyles since he’s pretty much the only person who can comprehend what she’s going through.
The movie breaks from previous iterations of the premise by leaning hard into the romantic comedy angle of the story as it touches on the idea of how multiple people experiencing the time loop together would adapt to the situation. For the most part, it means having wacky adventures for self-amusement and to alleviate boredom. There’s also some fun playing around with alternate timelines, and the slightest hint, though the concept goes largely unexplored, of the idea of an underground culture of people who are all caught in the time loop (J.K. Simmons pops up from time to time as yet another person trapped in the loop, and finding his own ways of dealing with it).
Sarah’s problem, though, is that no matter how much happiness she finds with Nyles, her day always begins with a reminder of a mistake for which, thanks to the time loop, she can never atone. Thus sets up one of the key philosophical conflicts of the film, as Nyles tries to remind her that while their consequences have no actions upon anyone else, the two of them will remember, and that can weigh heavily on the soul. Of course, that just makes her more determined to find some way to escape the loop.
While Nyles is a pretty typical character for Samberg, who plays him as a hedonistic loafer bemused by his circumstances, the key casting is Milioti, who deftly handles the comedic and intellectual pathos required for Sarah’s story arc in a way that’s hard to imagine many actresses being able to pull off. While many remember Milioti as the eponymous “mother” in the final season of “How I Met Your Mother,” her role here is more akin to her turn in the Emmy-winning “USS Callister” episode of Netflix’s “Black Mirror” as the crew member least willing to accept her place in the simulation as she rallies those trapped with her to find a way out of it.
Her efforts in Palm Springs will likely result in the film an eminently watchable comedy on its own, once fans have had a chance to loop through it a few times themselves on Hulu.