There’s nothing wrong with a comedy film that begins and ends with the same amusing premise, with no attempt in between to grow or explore. Laughter is vital for its own sake, and I don’t need my comedy to teach me the meaning of life while it’s making me giggle. While this is true, it also means that when a film does come along that manages to do both, it strikes me as particularly special. “Palm Springs” is one of those special films, a heart-filled achievement in genre storytelling that somehow manages to be both hilarious and profound without ever feeling like it’s trying too hard to be either.
Nyles (Andy Samberg) and Sarah (Cristin Milioti) meet at the reception for Sarah’s sister’s wedding in Palm Springs, where they’re both very sick of the forced ceremony of the whole thing. Sarah finds herself drawn to her new friend’s detached, go-with-the-flow energy even amid the strictures of the wedding, and so they end up spending an evening together. When the evening suddenly and strangely ends with a mysterious glow Sarah can’t explain, she finds herself awake back in the same bed she was in the night before, hearing the same sounds out the window, and realizing that somehow she is living her sister’s wedding day over again. A quick trip to hunt down Nyles reveals that this is not an isolated occurrence, at least for him. Due to a strange rift that he still can’t fully explain, Nyles has been in an infinite time loop, reliving the wedding day so long that he can’t actually remember when it started, and he’s basically just given up trying to figure it out. Faced with the choice of solving the problem alone or wasting time together, Sarah chooses the latter, but wasting time forever proves to be harder than she thinks.
The obvious comparison to be drawn here is with “Groundhog Day,” the Harold Ramis/Bill Murray classic that gets a lot of mileage out of learning life lessons via a time loop, but “Palm Springs” almost immediately manages to set itself apart thanks to a very clever structure. Writer Andy Siara and director Max Barbakow begin their narrative with the idea that one major character can show another exactly how their weird new status quo works, which provides a kind of comedic shortcut that skips over a lot of explanation and gets right to the laughs. It also provides a sense of real connection, as neither Nyles nor Sarah seems willing to simply give up entirely because the other is there. It’s that turn, that sense of partnership, that pushes “Palm Springs” into the territory of true brilliance.
But of course, the partnership doesn’t work without the leads, and it’s there that Samberg and Milioti both prove all over again that they’re masters of the marriage of comedy and drama. Even in the film’s silliest moment, they’re capable of often surprising vulnerability, and the chemistry they share as a pair of goofballs trying to find meaning from a meaningless existence is palpable. Throw in an amazing supporting turn from J.K. Simmons and you’ve got a movie.
All of this adds up to a film that’s a perfect summation of the world we’re in right now. The days repeat, and then repeat again, and we start to wake up in the morning with a sense of droning malaise, because we feel we know what the next day will bring even before it starts. It’s a good metaphor for staying home, but it’s also a good metaphor for marriage, a dead-end job, illness, and countless other very real life experiences that sometimes feel like a neverending time loop. What matters, as these characters soon find out, is the impact you make in the time, however strange, that you are afforded. In that way, “Palm Springs” becomes a goofy, warm, endless amusing treatise on life in interesting times, and reveals itself to be one of the most uplifting films of the year.
‘Palm Springs’ is now streaming on Hulu.