REVIEW: Palm Springs [2020]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 90 minutes
    Release Date: July 10th, 2020 (USA)
    Studio: Neon / Hulu
    Director(s): Max Barbakow
    Writer(s): Andy Siara

To pretending not to care.

A cinematic time-loop narrative is nothing new in Hollywood, so finding one that feels fresh almost thirty years after Groundhog Day is rare. Since the usual way to throw a wrench into the proceedings has always been changing genres to see how things fare with action, science fiction, horror, or high school drama added to the mix, it almost seems too easy to discover all that was necessary were a few simple shifts in focus. Director Max Barbakow and writer Andy Siara give us the first right from the get-go as their Palm Springs opens with an already adrift and despondent Nyles (Andy Samberg). We never learn how long he’s been trapped to relive this day, but it’s been long enough to accept there’s no escape.

Shift number two arrives shortly thereafter courtesy of Sarah (Cristin Milioti) and later Roy (J.K. Simmons). Rather than structure this purgatorial nightmare as some sort of penance en route to learning a much-needed lesson (although it is that too when you consider everyone has room to grow, take stock, and remove heads from asses), what’s happening to these characters is an “actual” quantum physics anomaly. Be good, be bad, be whatever you want: you’re still waking up the next morning like you did the day before. Whether they evolve, devolve, or stay the same, they’re trapped in a paradox that demands some outside-the-box thinking if they are even up to the task. And as anyone who’s been there as long as Nyles knows, he’s certainly not.

Suddenly we have no idea what to expect. By not meeting Nyles beforehand, we don’t know what his experiences inside taught him. By having other personalities involved so he has people to talk with and interact, the sky is the limit on what those relationships might deliver. Siara and Barbakow can explore the difference between entering this loop voluntarily, involuntarily, or accidentally. They can hide secrets beyond one protagonist that provide a narrative layering and the ability to leave Nyles and follow Sarah instead. We as viewers are thus no longer forced to endure their individual suffering. Bouncing back and forth gives us room to breathe just as the novice (Sarah) having a guide (Nyles) erases the necessity of languishing through expository rules Bill Murray explained decades ago.

The story can thus exist on its own merits beyond its conceit. A real romance can emerge between Nyles and Sarah without the threat of its progression getting thrown out the window when one resets to default setting at midnight. The antics are the same (causing a ruckus, saying that which they never would if consequences were involved, becoming proficient at a skill with nothing more than a cut to a future date, etc.), but something is building. We see it in the smiles on their faces every new morning. What had been a curse quickly becomes a whirlwind fairy tale. But as in life, fantasy only goes so far. The moment it stops masking the underlying problem their circumstances can’t forget, the cracks grow wider.

That’s where the good stuff arrives. These are self-involved characters that would retreat further into themselves when confronted with an eternity alone. Nyles is a mess with nothing but the memorized mechanics of the day to entertain him. Roy is enraged to the point of not being able to get out of his own way. And Sarah no longer has tomorrow to move past whatever regret yesterday supplied—it gets amplified each cycle rather than subdued. So they use one another as pawns inside their own delusions. They try to run from acknowledging their own failings by projecting them onto an enemy, romantic interest, or patsy in the wrong place at the wrong time. But as Nyles repeats throughout: the pain is real. You remember everything.

What therefore happens when they allow themselves to be vulnerable and confront their fears? The seeming big picture insignificance might just buckle under the small picture significance’s profundity. As soon as futility sets in, however, incentive disappears. Fears are replaced by comfort until the pain is numbed or avoided altogether. Where Nyles and Roy wake to find themselves the same disgruntled egotists they’ve always been, Sarah’s mornings reveal her at her absolute worst. They resign themselves to “normalcy” while she’s forever searching for it because getting used to her heightened fate is impossible. She’s better than who she is that morning. She’s merely been punishing herself with her own destructive loop for years. This one’s tighter and outside her control—preventing her from exiting long enough to pretend it away.

The result is perhaps weightier where the introspective drama is concerned than you might expect. Its emotional and psychological revelations will always be undercut by comedy, but they’re no less effective for it. If anything, that laughter helps because it pushes Samberg into taking a backseat to Milioti’s complexity despite having more screen-time and the central focus. Because his Nyles is too far-gone not to resist the urge to minimize and deflect, he becomes a sort of distraction so Sarah can do what needs to be done off-screen without the script getting bogged down by logistics. We follow the jester as the queen goes to war. He laughs because he can no longer feel beyond the moment. She grows serious because she’s left feeling everything but.

[1] Sarah (Cristin Milioti) and Nyles (Andy Samberg), shown. (Photo by: Jessica Perez/Hulu)
[2] Howard (Peter Gallagher) and Pia (Jacqueline Obradors), shown. (Photo by: Christopher Willard/Hulu)
[3] Jerry (Tongayi Chirisa), shown. (Photo by: Christopher Willard/Hulu)

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