Palm Springs has a hellish and horribly relatable premise: what if you were stuck in a time loop on the day you were attending someone else’s wedding? Worse, you’re mostly someone’s plus one, so you have all the social obligations but none of the emotional investments. It feels straight out of The Good Place’s Bad Place: an eternity of small talk and uncomfortable clothes.
Well, by the time Palm Springs opens, Nyles (Andy Samberg) has mostly ditched the uncomfortable clothes, opting instead for the “fuck it” vibe that comes from attending a wedding in shorts and a loud Hawaiian shirt. We don’t see Nyles start his looping; in a nice subversion, we begin with him already so inured to his new state of being that he can’t even remember what he used to do for a living. He can’t say how long he’s been stuck like this. He’s hit a particular kind of slacker Zen that Samberg embodies very well: Nyles is detached and genuinely, fundamentally strange by this point, but he’s not indifferent. And the lines he draws in the sand are ones that could easily seem absurd. He’ll suffer through being repeatedly, painfully, creatively murdered by Roy (the always-welcome J.K. Simmons), his disgruntled fellow looper, but his response is to just try to avoid Roy. When a confrontation does ensue, he’s horrified by Roy getting hurt. “The pain is real,” he says. “What we do to each other matters. Being a source of terror, okay, it’s not fun. It’s not fulfilling … It doesn’t matter that it resets and they don’t remember, we remember. We have to deal with the things that we do.”
It’s a good speech. It’s also one he doesn’t always live up to, and the movie is partly about forcing him to confront how he’s broken his own rules and forcing him to see the limitations of the view that inspired them. His philosophy has helped him survive this situation with his sanity (mostly) intact, but it’s also helped make this loop feel more familiar and more comprehensible to him than the world outside of September 9 in Palm Springs. He’s not necessarily well-equipped to deal with something new.
But he has to, in the form of Sarah (Cristin Milioti), the sister of the bride and her family’s dark sheep. Sarah winds up joining Nyles in the time loop, and her experience of it is fresh and inventive and defiant. She tries the traditional time loop exits–death and a sudden display of dramatic selflessness–to no avail, and even when she joins Nyles in his “everything is meaningless” slacker-drifter existence, she’s more active. Milioti is great at projecting a frantic, damaged vibe that’s only just barely underneath a casual surface; she feels like a ticking time bomb even during the most lighthearted caper scenes of Sarah and Nyles goofing off via coordinated dancing in a dive bar.
And, of course, they fall in love. Samberg and Milioti have nice, laid-back chemistry, and the film knows exactly how to use it, putting Nyles and Sarah in fun caper after fun caper, letting them bond through an immature but likable world of goofing off–and then pushing them to a point where a relationship built on good times is no longer good enough. They have to become people who are willing to confront trouble, not run away from it, and they have to understand who they are, what they want, and what they’ve done.
It’s also well-observed and specific: when we see a flashback to Nyles accidentally pulling Roy into the looping process, he says that that was pretty early in his timeline, and that’s substantiated by the small detail that he’s still bothering to wear a tux to the wedding. When Sarah is theorizing that the loop could be a karmic punishment of some kind that they have to break with a gesture, Nyles points to the fact that he just gave a kid a hundred bucks for one of those charity candy bars (telling the kid to promise him to spend all the change in one day): “I mean, I just bought a hundred dollar candy bar, and I’m still here.”
It’s a romantic-comedy science fiction film that’s genuinely interested in how the romance, the comedy, and the science fictional situation all affect its characters, and that means that even when it’s not quite clicking (the pacing lags, for one thing), it still feels substantial and genuine enough to be appealing.
Palm Springs is now available on Hulu.