There are far worse places to be stuck for eternity than Palm Springs. Like Punxsutawney, the town Bill Murray can’t escape in “Groundhog Day,” for example. So many copycat time-loop movies have come along in the 27 years since that each new imitator can’t help sounding like a broken record, which is what makes Max Barbakow’s infinite-regress comedy “Palm Springs” such a refreshing remix of this overplayed genre — although that doesn’t necessarily justify the price Neon and Hulu paid for it at the Sundance Film Festival (you can buy yourself a Banksy, or 10, for $17,500,000.69). At least the scenery’s better in sunny California.
The movie opens with a shot of the eponymous oasis, ripped open by a giant CG earthquake, but it doesn’t really begin until the moment Nyles opens his eyes. As played by Andy Samberg, he’s the slacker plus-one to younger girlfriend Misty (Meredith Hagner), who’s invited him along to an early-November wedding in Palm Springs. The day starts off well enough — with a quickie that suggests this mismatched couple isn’t altar-bound anytime soon — and steadily improves. Nyles makes himself comfortable at the ceremony, relaxing in the pool, getting drunk at the bar and stepping in at just the right moment to save Sarah (Cristin Milioti), the sister of the bride, from making a drunken toast she’d be sure to regret later. And then he proceeds to seduce her.
All in all, this seems to be just about the best version of this day Nyles could possibly experience. You might be asking yourself, how is it that Nyles seems to know everything before it happens? And it’s just about at this point that (a) something totally violent and random happens to spoil his bliss and (b) the day resets to find Nyles back in the same bed where he started, reliving another version of the same 24 hours.
“This is insane!” the woman seated beside me said when point (a) happened, and then she repeated it again at point (b). In fact, over the course of the movie’s tight 90-minute running time, so many wild twists caught this woman by surprise — like the scene where the bride (Camila Mendes) slips and knocks out her front teeth, or the TMI sexual-history montage, or the dinosaurs (hey, it worked for Terrence Malick) — that the number of times she repeated “This is insane!” became kind of ironic unto itself.
But this woman wasn’t wrong. “Palm Springs” is insane. Screenwriter Andy Siara knows we’ve seen our share of time-loop movies. He knows the problems we have with their plot holes and logic gaps. And he knows that the rules in this genre never, ever make sense, which is why he goes a completely different direction here — well, not completely different. Taking a page from “Russian Doll,” Nyles realizes that he’s not the only one caught in a loop. The CG in this movie looks terrible (so bad that it almost becomes funny), but that earthquake we saw at the beginning opened some glowing rift in the space-time continuum, situated in a remote desert cave, and anyone who follows him in there winds up cursed to relive Nov. 9 forever.
The cave is maybe the one detail in this otherwise ingeniously scripted movie that doesn’t work. Presumably, it’s there to explain how Nyles entered the time loop. It also justifies how Sarah and a random guy named Roy (who’s very angry, and very hilariously played by J.K. Simmons) found themselves in the same predicament. The important thing is that these three — but mostly just Nyles and Sarah — share a different attitude toward this seemingly never-ending wedding than the other guests, knowing that no matter what they do, it doesn’t actually matter: not suicide, not courageous acts of selflessness. There is no Grand Architect of the Universe, no giant screenwriter’s hand to reach down, like the animator in “Duck Amok,” and reward them for doing the right thing.
It means Nyles and Sarah can be as reckless as they please, with no consequences, and Barbakow (this is her first feature) delights in orchestrating a series of absurd situations, such as picking fights, crashing planes and doing shrooms. Such nihilism is more than just a comedic opportunity; it’s a dramatic one as well. If the parents of the bride (who include Peter Gallagher, in an amusing cameo) are sincere believers in till-death-do-us-part romance — the squarest of squares in this movie’s estimation — then Nyles and Sarah are the cynical poster children for the generation that doesn’t believe in such attachments. He’s dating Misty for selfish reasons, and she’s hiding a very obvious secret, which makes waking up every morning in the wrong person’s bed especially painful.
The repetition — typically the most frustrating aspect of this genre — becomes a kind of metaphor for the drudgery of real life here. But “Palm Springs” is to time-loop movies as “Zombieland” was to the undead genre: It’s an irreverent take on a form where earlier iterations were obliged to take themselves seriously. And somehow that liberates what felt like a slick but ironic riff on a tired genre to do something sincere, both with the connection between its two lead characters and also in a scene where we see Roy’s home life. It asks: If life’s routine is like a lousy carousel ride, repeating itself over and over, who would you want to spend it with? And it understands that finding the right person makes the bummer a lot more bearable.
Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival, Jan. 26, 2020. Running time: 90 MIN.
Running Time: Running time: 90 MIN.
A Hulu, Neon release of a Limelight Prods., Sun Entertainment presentation, of a Party Over Here, Limelight, Lonely Island Classics production. Producers: Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, Becky Sloviter, Jorma Taccone, Dylan Sellers, Chris Parker. Executive producers: Alex Dong, Gabriela Revilla Lugo.
Director: Max Barbakow. Screenplay: Andy Siara. Camera: Quyen “Q” Tran. Editors: Matthew Friedman, Andrew Dickler. Music: Matthew Compton.
Andy Samberg, Cristin Milioti, J.K. Simmons
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