Movie review: Unlikely pair can’t escape time loop in romantic comedy ‘Palm Springs’
By KATIE WALSH | Tribune News Service | Published: July 10, 2020
We’ve probably all been to a wedding that felt like it would never end. For Sarah (Cristin Milioti), that wedding is her younger sister’s, where she’s drowning herself in red wine and extremely unprepared to give a speech. Now imagine living that nightmarish day again, and again, and again. This is a vision of a sun-drenched, perfectly Pinterested hell that co-writers Andy Siara and Max Barbakow, who also directs, have conjured as the setting for their cerebral “Groundhog Day”-inspired rom-com, “Palm Springs.”
Sarah is saved from the speech by a beer-swilling character in a Hawaiian shirt, Nyles (Andy Samberg), who seems to have perfected his wedding routine, anticipating every dance move, predicting every hookup. He’s either really, really intuitive, or he’s been here before. When Sarah follows him into the desert at night, she discovers that Nyles is trapped in an infinite time loop, like Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day” or Natasha Lyonne in “Russian Doll,” and now she is, too.
Against the expansive desert backdrop and a repeating ritual of love, Sarah and Nyles will reckon with what it means to never grow old, never die. How will you live your life when there are no consequences for anything you do? Hit by a car? Wake up in the morning. Hook up with the bartender? Wake up in the morning. Perform an elaborate dance routine wearing matching denim jackets in the local dive bar? Wake up in the morning. It’s the power of an infinitely clean slate, which Nyles uses to test the boundaries of polite behavior and enjoy a perpetual vacation, sipping cervezas on a pool floaty. Sarah, on the other hand, craves more: more meaning, more weight to her actions, more redemption.
These are the questions that drive the curious existence of Nyles and Sarah in “Palm Springs,” which is as high-concept as it is low-key. Barbakow achieves a chill and stylish vibe for what is fundamentally a hangout movie that begs the question: How weird can you get? What Nyles and Sarah find in the weirdness is the deep human connection they’ve been lacking, Nyles coasting in a vapid relationship with bridesmaid Misty (Meredith Hagner, who absolutely owns the niche she’s carved out for herself playing absurd ditzes), Sarah stuck in the broken divorcee rut.
Barbakow and Siara build a world around a fantastical premise, but one that feels real and natural. The infinite time loop is outlandish enough, so there’s no need to mug for cheap laughs, and the laugh-out-loud moments are organically earned. It offers the actors a sense of freedom to be as real or as kooky as they want to be. It’s nice to see Samberg in a romantic leading role that plays on his strengths of sweet silliness, but “Palm Springs” belongs to Milioti, in a breakout performance. Although she’s had an enormously successful career on stage and in TV, this feels like the first leading film role for Milioti that allows her to show new shades of her range. She’s darker, funnier, wackier than she’s been before, but still grounded.
The canon of infinite time loop texts is often about finding serenity in the insanity, their neurotic protagonists learning to surrender to the scenario. That message is even more poignant now, as we all seem to be trapped in the never-ending sameness of quarantine. But “Palm Springs” takes it one step further: It’s not just about accepting, but finding connection in the madness. Maybe that’s the only way to find salvation within, and possibly escape the loop.
“Palm Springs” is rated R for sexual content, language throughout, drug use and some violence. Running time: 90 minutes.