Palm Springs might be all about losing yourself in an infinite time loop, but it doesn’t waste a second.
The indie Andy Samberg rom-com, which debuts on Hulu Friday after its January premiere at Sundance Film Festival, plunks an extremely likable cast—Samberg, Cristin Milioti, J.K. Simmons—into a cocktail mixer and shakes them together in a wedding-inflected Groundhog Day gambit. The end result could have been lazy, resting on the charisma of its cast and the trendiness of time loops. But thankfully for us, this is not that movie; this one is deceptively empathetic and even stirring—and it all unfolds with crisp writing that never lingers anywhere too long.
Things start out ordinarily enough—with Samberg’s character, Nyles, waking up the day of the wedding and having stunted, sweatless sex with a girlfriend he now only tolerates. For a while, you might get whiffs of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which also juxtaposed its central characters’ decrepit (or in that case dead) romance against blindingly sunny environs. But that night at the wedding, Nyles starts chatting up the maid of honor, Sarah (Milioti). And that’s when things get... weird.
Just as Nyles and Sarah are in the beginning throes of a clandestine hook-up, J.K. Simmons comes out of nowhere and shoots Nyles with a crossbow. (I’ll let you find out why that happens.) Nyles crawls into a fiery cave, and despite his warnings for Sarah not to follow him... she does! Turns out he had a good reason: Now she is trapped in a wedding day that just won’t end, just like he’s been for God knows how long.
Although screenwriter Andy Siara and director Max Barbakow could not have known that their rom-com would debut in the middle of a pandemic-mandated quarantine, Palm Springs is actually kind of perfect for this moment. We now all know what it’s like to feel as though each day is the same as the last; when Nyles comments about how fuzzy time has become for him, it’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry. (I, for one, laughed out loud while a primal, silent scream also erupted in my brain—probably in the region that stores all the hobbies I’ve already picked up and discarded while stuck in my apartment.) There’s also something familiar about Palm Springs’s humorous take on pseudo-apocalyptic aesthetics. Sure, Nyles and Sarah are hanging out in a middle-of-nowhere desert thanks to a cave of fire, but they’re making the best of it! We do have our fun, don’t we?
As evidenced by his habit of cracking open beer after beer before noon while floating around in a random family’s pool on an inflatable pizza slice, Nyles has gotten used to this repetitive lifestyle already. Sarah, on the other hand, needs a little while to adjust. Soon enough the two figure out how to make the most of purgatory together—playing pranks, stealing (and crashing) planes, and otherwise goofing off. They’re just two crazy kids who love making fun of sappy people and tattooing dicks on each other’s backs.
Still, tension lingers between them. From the beginning when they began innocently flirting with no knowledge of what was to come, their chemistry was clear. What should they do now—take a shot at a fling and risk being stuck with an ex for eternity? Or is it better to keep things simple?
As much as both Sarah and Nyles love to scoff at the idea of traditional romance, though, this is not the story of two commitment-phobes discovering the power of love. Monotony—perhaps the most stereotypical boogeyman of monogamous relationships—is already a given for them. They wake up each morning as the only two people who know what is actually going on in this warped little knot of the universe. They’re not afraid of growing bored of one another, but of losing one another. They’re afraid of wanting too much—of risking too much.
It’s that dynamic that makes this a particularly fascinating showcase for Samberg. He’s spent his career playing oblivious oafs, and although some of his performances have displayed the tiniest streak of vulnerability, none compare to what he’s doing here. This is not a drama or even a dramedy—but in one pivotal scene especially, we do discover the root of Nyles’s discomfort with talking about his emotions. It’s surprisingly moving, and it feels like the culmination of a career spent exploring braggadocios frat-boy characters. Palm Springs, and that scene in particular, hint at the possibilities that lie ahead for Samberg in film, should he choose to pursue them. (Also, side note: If you already had a crush on Andy Samberg before, this movie just might end you.)
Milioti, meanwhile, plays Sarah with just the right balance of edge and yearning. From the writing, to the direction, to the performance, it’s clear that care has been taken to strike a balance with Sarah—to undercut all of her insistence that she’s a cool girl with not a fuck to give with quiet hints that really, she, too, harbors more fear and regret that meets the eye.
It’s tempting to talk about Palm Springs as an unexpectedly apt pandemic rom-com, but that almost feels like a disservice. Truth be told, this might be the best rom-com of any sort to debut in years. It’s a hell of a feature directorial debut for both Siara and Barbakow, whose mastery of pacing and punchlines keeps the film surprising to the end—and guarantees no montage overstays its welcome. After breaking a record at Sundance for the biggest sale ever—by 69 cents—it was worth every “nice,” shiny penny.