There comes a time in just about everyone’s life where suddenly every day feels the same. Wake up, get dressed, eat, work, eat, work, eat, rest, and start it all over again. Maybe you’re lucky and you get to mix things up with a meeting or an appointment, but even those with company find themselves in a similar rut. The arts have explored this seemingly endless cycle of sameness in a variety of ways, but none so perfectly captures the metaphor of stunted progression like a time loop. Here, the perception of sameness is made manifest as protagonists are forced to confront their unwillingness to self-actualize by expecting a literal same day over and again. In film, audiences most recently have seen this explored in films like Before I Fall (2013), Predestination (2014), ARQ (2016), and Happy Death Day (2017). Joining the ranks is a film which finds something not only unique in its handling of the time loop but also profoundly thoughtful and emotionally evocative, the Max Barbakow-directed Palm Springs.
On a beautiful November day in Palm Springs, California, Nyles (Andy Samberg) wakes to his girlfriend Misty (Meredith Hagner) getting ready to participate as a bridesmaid in her friend Tala’s (Camila Mendes) wedding. While she joins the wedding party for various frivolities, Nyles spends his day getting day-wasted and continues to hammer them back into the reception. There, Nyles meets unhappy-to-be-anywhere Sarah (Cristin Milioti), Tala’s older sister, and the two abscond from the party to wander the nearby desert. Just as the two are getting close, Nyles is attacked and heads into a nearby cave for safety, cautioning Sarah not to follow. Except she does follow and quickly discovers that the cave contains an entrance to a time loop without end. At first, the two nihilists spend countless days enjoying themselves, but there are some days that must be escaped and those without end allow no room for true growth.
For a first-time feature film, Barbakow offers a film that’s relentlessly entertaining and whose attempts at profundity largely work. Rather than relying on the performative chops of the cast, all of which are in sync to create a tapestry of hilarity and pain, Barbakow utilizes the full spectrum of cinematic tricks so that there’s not a single wasted moment and no unnecessary slog. Even the expected declaration of romantic love is delivered in a unique manner that continues to bring a smile just thinking on it. Much of this is due to the performances from Milioti and Samberg, as well as Andy Siara (Lodge 49)’s script, but it’s Barbakow’s direction in concert with Andrew Dickler and Matt Friedman’s editing that cause the sequence to take on its singular charm. Now extend that to the entire film as Palm Springs takes everything you know, adds in a sprinkle of multiverse theory for good measure, and then mixes in a love story that goes beyond superficial romance into something resonant. One of the more brilliant narrative tools Barbakow and Siara utilize is that Nyles’s journey has been ongoing for some time before the film itself begins and they don’t hide it. Then, upon introducing Sarah to the mix, the narrative switches between their relative perspectives, a wonderful change from the slightly linear approach most time loop stories take as it’s revealed that Nyles and Sarah don’t share a time loop, they are just both in it. Hence, multiverse theory. The narrative sharing is a necessity for the film’s structure but also a brilliant way to invigorate a narrative tool audiences already know the rules for. The possibilities from here become truly endless and a great deal of fun to watch unfold.
Underneath the fairly standard time loop premise is story that’s deeper, darker, and earnest. Developed by Barbakow and script writer Siara, Palm Springs isn’t a story of two outcasts finding comfort in each other, but about two individuals who feel lost and untethered to everyone else with whom they happen to collide. As the story unfolds, the audience is made privy to why Sarah views the world as she does, but Nyles mostly remains a mystery. Some of this can be chalked up to how long Nyles has been stuck in the cycle — long enough to have memorized everyone’s movements on the reception dance floor, at least — while the rest may be Nyles’s desire to run from his pain. Samberg is an incredibly versatile actor, able to jump between humor and pain without reducing the weight of either feeling or emotion, and his embodiment of Nyles offers up audiences a chance to see the former SNL performer/Brooklyn Nine-Nine leading man in a new way. Palm Springs may be a Lonely Island Classics production, Samberg and his Lonely Island collaborators Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone are co-producers on the project, but this film is no Jizz in my Pants-type of comedy. Rather, via Nyles, the audience gets a glimpse of what it’s like when one stunts their own growth because future pain is too terrifying. This is coming from someone who has sought every way out of the time loop as productive, imaginative, and physically violent as one can. From this perspective, it’s hard not to wonder who Nyles was before the time loop and if this resignation is a by-product of entrapment or is just who he is. If the past is irrelevant to determining the choices you make today, part of the argument Nyles himself makes to Sarah as they grow to know one another, then who Nyles was doesn’t matter within the scope of the film (and it largely doesn’t, he’s not really the important one in the story) but his choices are unintentionally problematic. When one believes that each day is the same and their choices bear no impact on the future, the people around you become disposable and expendable. Ordinarily, a time loop comedy toys with this to garner laughs, as Palm Springs does quite frequently, but the film also encourages the audience to consider that the people outside the loop are not toys to be played with at the behest of staving off boredom. The folks at NEON continually support films that purposefully poke and provoke its audience and Palm Springs is no exception.
This is where Milioti’s Sarah comes in. She’s not the standard love interest (to great delight) nor is she the typical spiraling fuck-up who must become a better person to break free, a la Groundhog Day (woohoo!). Unlike Nyles, the audience gets to know Sarah, exploring why the time loop is both savior and jailer, offering answers that are continually interesting and striking. Like Samberg, Milioti is adept at juggling the tonal shifts that occur frequently out of nowhere. In one moment, Palm Springs has you laughing as Sarah throws a Millionth Birthday Party for Nyles and, in another, has you considering the psychological implications of never-ending today as it relates the fragility of Man. Keep in mind, by the way, that Milioti is not “keeping up with Samberg.” She is blazing her own path in Palm Springs, stealing the light from him nearly every time she appears. This is critically important in the scope of the film because, and this goes back to the phrasing regarding fragility, Sarah is anything but. Her story, in comparison to Nyles’s, seems the same, but the narrative reveals something darker that the character must contend with that demonstrates a resilience and strength that none of her family recognizes, but that we, the audience, and Nyles come to know quite well.
There’s a great deal which can be written about Palm Springs beginning with Nyles’s potential institutionalization from his unknown stay within the loop or his willingness to suffer (and have others suffer) if it means he’s a little less lonely. There’s also a recognition of tranquility that comes from recognizing personal responsibility in a brief, yet scene-stealing performance from the always amazing J.K. Simmons (The Legend of Korra). Or the fact that determinism is a lie and only true desire for self-actualization can break devitalizing cycles of pain. If you can believe that a romantic sci-fi comedy from a first-time feature director and two highly talented comic leads can contain all of that and manage to stick the landing, then you’re in for a real treat once Palm Springs hits Hulu. If it feels at all familiar, don’t worry, you’ll break that feeling soon enough.
Available for streaming on Hulu July 10th, 2020.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.