What’s new, readers? Are you still as shocked as I am that Rudy Giuliani reached into his fun factory in Borat 2? And that Jared Leto will return as the most-hated incarnation of the Joker in the Snyder Cut of Justice League? And that the election is coming up in ten days? I’ve said this over and over, and I’ll say it again: vote, vote, vote. Don’t listen to the polls, just get out there and vote. This is our chance to throw enough support behind Joe Biden, nullify Trump and his cronies’ attempts to manipulate the election, and reclaim our democracy. And hey, at least there’s a ray of sunshine in the form of Pope Francis being the first pope to support gay marriage. 🏳️🌈👏🏳️🌈👏
All right, how about we start in on the Hulu release Palm Springs. Let me just tell you right now that this is a must-see. If you’re unfamiliar with the premise, stop reading this review posthaste and stream the movie without watching any trailers. It will be a very pleasant surprise once you realize what’s transpiring during those first ten minutes. If you already know what I’m talking about, stay here for my non-spoilery thoughts.
The plot takes place in, oddly enough, sunshiny Palm Springs, California. When Sarah (Cristin Milioti), the caustic maid of honor at her sister’s wedding, hooks up with slacker guest Nyles (Andy Samberg), things spiral out of control and she ends up getting sucked into a time loop that repeats the wedding day—one in which Nyles has already been lost for who knows how long. Ever since Bill Murray’s Phil Connors weathered his own time loop in 1993’s Groundhog Day, a small number of successors have followed suit with their own special turns on the physics-bending trope—movies like Edge of Tomorrow and Happy Death Day, the Netflix series Russian Doll, Justin A. Reynolds’s young adult novel Opposite of Always, and now Palm Springs. In the case of Palm Springs, the subtle vein of wit in the screenplay and the copious charm of the stars discriminate it from its rivals as an appealing indie rom-com full of zany fun, intelligent humor, and perceptive poignance.
Palm Springs—helmed by debut director Max Barbakow, written by Andy Siara, produced by Samberg’s comedic trio The Lonely Island, and shot in twenty-one days on a budget of merely five million dollars—was showered with critical praise at Sundance Film Festival this past February. Neon subsequently bought the comedy for 17.5 million dollars and sixty-nine cents, making it the biggest acquisition in Sundance’s history. Why wasn’t it a flat fee, you may ask? Well, Lonely Island, known for its offbeat brand of humor, wanted to top the festival’s previous record of selling Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation reboot for 17.5 million dollars. It really is a shame that the movie didn’t get the theatrical release it deserved. If we didn’t have to worry about globules of saliva flying out of the gaping mouths of anti-maskers who may or may not be teeming with coronavirus, I bet this would have made a nice bundle of moolah at the box office. On the other hand, Palm Springs did drop at a pertinent time that emphasizes the way in which our own lives have meandered into monotonous time loops during quarantine. There’s even a point early on where the movie gives viewers a knowing wink through Nyles informing a bewildered Sarah that she’s stuck in “one of those infinite time loop situations you might have about.”
Barbakow and Siara deserve points for keeping the narrative straightforward, especially in regard to the sci-fi rules they set up to explain the time loop. What especially stands out in Palm Springs—a time-loop story that mimics Edge of Tomorrow by involving multiple people in the same loop—is the chemistry between the endearing leads. Samberg plays a goofball who, after enduring the wedding countless times, has reached the point where he treats the scenario with a nihilistic sort of Zen attitude (by the way, Nyles is definitely short for “nihilism”). Milioti depicts a brash divorcee who vehemently opposes the prospect of eternally reliving her sister’s wedding. As different as Sarah and Nyles appear from each other, both of them deal with a shared struggle to find purpose in their aimless and unsatisfying lives. As the plot develops, we as the audience, aside from a few mawkish moments that might have been transplanted from a conventional rom-com, are engaged by their interplay on multiple levels—cheering for them in spite of their deep flaws, getting a kick out of the antics they pull off because it lets us vicariously play out fantasies of how we would futz around in our own time loops, relating with their existential angst as they settle down in their repetitious circumstances and forge an intimate bond.
Before Palm Springs, I didn’t have much of an opportunity to fully appreciate Samberg’s comedic chops. I knew he was on SNL and I had watched a few animated movies to which he lent his voice, but I’ve seen neither Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping nor Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Hey, did you know he voiced the main monkey in 2008’s Space Chimps? Yep, Space Chimps, the animated flick where the grandson of the first chimpanzee in space leads an intrepid crew of chimp astronauts to recover a space probe that has passed through an intergalactic wormhole. I completely forgot about that little gem (and the fact that Kristin Chenoweth played a glowing lightbulb-y alien with the not-at-all-blatant name of Kilowatt) until I looked up Samberg’s filmography. 2008 gave us another animated space movie, too: Pixar’s Wall-E. Quite the quality gap there. Anyhoo, Samberg oozes laid-back charisma as Nyles, but also gives the character enough depth to sell the undercurrent of isolation running beneath his easygoing demeanor.
As for Milioti, she crushes every second of her performance. It’s funny how the cold open tricks you into believing Nyles is the protagonist, but then Sarah, whose tenacious pursuit to escape the loop counters Nyles’s complacency, becomes the narrative’s catalyst. I’d never even heard of Milioti before this movie, but it was fascinating to look over her credits—How I Met Your Mother, Fargo, The Wolf of Wall Street, the Black Mirror season four premiere “USS Callister,” and she even snagged a Tony nomination and a Grammy for her breakthrough performance in the Broadway adaptation of Once (“Falling Slowly”—what a knockout). It’s similar to the way I went into Knives Out expecting Daniel Craig or Chris Evans to be the lead, never anticipating that Ana De Armas, whom I’d mostly known of through Blade Runner 2049 at that point, would be such a mesmerizing presence. Make sure you invest in Milioti stock, because she’s got the goods.
Of course, let’s not forget to put our hands up for J.K. Simmons, who delivers a couple of my favorite gags as Roy and enhances the rom-com’s intrinsic pathos. While he may not be a Hollywood actor you think of as A-list or even B-list, you can’t deny what a delight he is wherever he shows up. I can’t wait to see more of him as the bald and blustering J. Jonah Jameson in the MCU.
I do think the movie missed out on a chance for some LGBTQIA rep. While Nyles reveals he’s slept with women and men in the time loop, his sexuality feels more like a superficial bit rather than a telling facet of his identity. Considering the fair amount of sexuality strewn throughout the story, it would have been nice to see it squeeze in one or two queer characters.
And now I’m about to raise the spoiler alarm, so I advise you to stop reading if you haven’t seen Palm Springs, a heartwarming movie that strikes the right balance between witty comedy and reflective drama. If you have, then stay right here.
Windup score: 90/100
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
First, I need to give a shout-out to my favorite moment in the whole movie: the meet-cute in the beginning where a luau-shirt-wearing Nyles dances through the crowd to reach Sarah, keeping his gaze locked with hers and synchronizing his path to line up with the wedding guests’ inebriated bumbling along the way. This is such an incredibly fun scene that showcases the ingenuity of Siara’s screenplay and feels choreographed as though it’s in a musical. And there are loads of other entertaining gags—the Lonely Island spin on the Sony Pictures Classics title shot, the montage of the multiple times Roy has hunted down Nyles (I can’t get enough of the glint of esurient vengeance in Simmons’s eyes), the plane crash, the bar dance, the bomb in the wedding cake, the dinosaurs (Siara’s love of Jurassic Park inspired him to write them into the script), Roy pointing out his kid watering dog shit, and Nyles hitching a ride with Spuds by claiming to be his long-lost son.
As I said before, I appreciate the simplicity of the science-fiction mechanics. An earthquake cracks open a cave leading to a rift in the space-time continuum, the day restarts every time you fall asleep or die or enter the cave, and you can break out of the quantum box you’re trapped in by blowing yourself up in the cave. It’s easy to picture a version of this plot that navigates Tenet-level intricacy (hmm, time inversion within a time loop?), but I’m glad it didn’t go there. Speaking of which, I’m on the edge of my seat for Tenet. I wish I could see it in theaters, but I’m not in the mood to tempt death.
What I really love is how the main characters evolve over the course of the story. Sarah is terrified of making any genuine emotional connections while coping with her guilt over cheating with the groom on the night before her sister’s wedding. Nyles, having been in the loop for so long that he can’t remember what he did for a living, is afraid of whatever disappointments he may face if he were to return to his old life. Roy, apoplectic with rage at Nyles for dragging him into the loop while they were high, hunts him down day after day with a bow and arrow as his favored weapon, but eventually comes to appreciate the marriage he once called a “pit of despair.” Each of them was wandering down a road of unhappiness and disappointment pre-time-loop. After a protracted stay in the loop, however, they reassess their perspectives on life and ultimately redeem themselves by the end of this introspective journey.
The reveal of Sarah having an affair with her sister’s fiancé does leave me a little confused. Her actions never betrayed any clues that could have set up the twist beforehand, so it seems strange for her to show such an abrupt shift in her behavior afterwards. You could theorize that the reason is because she never gave much thought to the affair until the night she sleeps with Nyles, at which point she realizes she’s looking for more in life and becomes overwhelmed with shame at her horrible mistake. It’s also possible that this is simply a plot inconsistency, in which case . . . *shrug*
A particularly great scene that boosts the script’s intelligence is the one where Nyles gives Sarah an earful for unnecessarily running over Roy after he pulled them over in the guise of a police officer: “Pain matters. What we do to other people matters,” Nyles chides. “Being a source of terror is not fun, okay? It’s not fulfilling. I know this from experience. It doesn’t matter that everything resets and people don’t remember. We remember. We have to deal with the things that we do.” It’s intriguing to see Nyles, a guy who apparently grew comfortable with his belief in the futility of life, reproach Sarah for breaking the moral code he seems to have maintained. It has to make you ponder over what we might do if we were locked in our own time loop. Would we preserve our ethics for the sake of basic goodness, or would we rather succumb to our vices in a world where there are few consequences aside from the eroding of our integrity?
As for the Inception-esque ending, I think the confirmation that it’s November 10th, not 9th, and Nyles mentioning his dog for the first time are clear signs that he and Sarah are out of the loop. I’ve spent more time dissecting the mid-credits scene, which I initially loved but am now wondering if it pokes holes in the plots. Obviously, Roy is supposed to be encouraged that he can escape the loop when Nyles doesn’t remember him. The thing is, this is incongruent with the rules that had been laid down earlier. After all, if the goat is gone from the loop after Sarah exploded it in the cave, shouldn’t Nyles be gone too? My mind is trying to explain this away by reasoning that maybe the goat is still there and Sarah just never found it. In any case, this narrative discrepancy doesn’t detract from the positive experience with which Palm Springs left me.
So those are my two cents on Palm Springs, a remarkably executed rom-com whose profound and funny story can give us all a cathartic release during this trying pandemic. Let me conclude with one last statement: If I ever meet Samberg, I’d like to ask what Space Chimps was like for him. Was it a fun gig? Which of the lines did he ad-lib? How did he get in character for a chimpanzee who goes from performing for the circus to embarking on a space expedition? These are critical questions and they need answers.
All my love and prayers go to you, readers. Stay healthy and stay strong.