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Having the time of their lives – ‘Palm Springs’

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It’s rare for a movie to present an idea with such complete success as to essentially take ownership of said concept, to come up with a hook that becomes the model upon which future movies are based.

“Groundhog Day” is one of those rarities. How many times have you heard a film referred to as “‘Groundhog Day’ but X”? It has become an easy shorthand for the sort of recursive time loop story that has proven to work across all genres. Comedy, yes, but also horror, thriller, sci-fi … we’ve seen examples that run the gamut.

The newest entry into the time loop oeuvre is “Palm Springs,” currently streaming on Hulu. The Andy Samberg-starring comedy was a big hit at Sundance, with Hulu buying the film for a tidy $17.5 million (and 69 cents, which … nice). Directed by Max Barbakow from a screenplay by Andy Siara (and produced in part by Samberg and his Lonely Island cohorts Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer), the quick pitch is “‘Groundhog Day,’ but at a wedding” – and it is excellent.

It’s an engaging take on the trope, one that pushes the logistics of the premise to absurd extremes while also finding ways to explore the inevitable emotional ramifications of an eternity of repetition. It asks questions about love and the human condition, yes, but it also features great jokes and slapstick moments. All of it structured around genuine insight regarding life and its meaning.

Samberg stars as Nyles, a guest at the wedding of Tala (Camila Mendes, TV’s “Riverdale”) and Abe (Tyler Hoechlin, TV’s “Supergirl”) taking place on November 9 in Palm Springs. We watch as Nyles blearily shuffles through the day while his girlfriend Misty (Meredith Hagner, TV’s “Search Party”) is involved in the preparations. He spends the afternoon getting drunk in the pool before heading to the wedding, radiating a general disdain for the entire proceedings – right up until he steps up during the reception and makes a beautiful speech about love and relationships.

It’s at this point that he meets Sarah (Cristin Milioti, TV’s “No Activity”), the bride’s sister and the maid of honor who is clearly not that interested in the proceedings. She can tells something is off about Nyles, but still winds up heading out into the desert with him for a hookup. It’s all going well … until a mysterious man appears from the darkness and shoots Nyles with an arrow. Nyles calls out the man by name – it’s Roy (J.K. Simmons, “21 Bridges”) – and flees into the night. Roy makes his way into a strange glowing cave; the wounded Nyles drags himself in after. Sarah shows up at the cave’s mouth, but despite a warning from Nyles, she follows him in.

And then they both wake up … on the morning of November 9.

A distraught and confused Sarah tracks down Nyles, which is when she learns that he has been trapped in a time loop for an indeterminate (but extremely long) time – and that now she is as well. No matter what they do, how they spend the day, they will wake up in the same place on the morning of November 9. Sarah tries to work her own way out of the loop, but proves unable. Nyles also shares that Roy is also trapped, due to a cocaine-fueled bender the two shared; Roy occasionally pops up to exact revenge on Nyles, who he blames for his predicament.

Nyles and Sarah grow closer as they spend their days together engaged in increasingly absurd activities, both in and outside the wedding. Slowly, their relationship begins to blossom. But there are certain truths that Nyles has concealed from her, and as she starts to realize that there are still a lot of things she doesn’t know, a rift develops. And as the pressures of the situation continue to mount, the two of them have very different ideas about how to move forward – both in terms of their relationship and of time itself.

“Palm Springs” is an absolute delight, a wonderful take on the time loop trope that manages to feel both self-referential and original. The comedic possibilities are well-documented of course, and this film certainly embraces them with an enthusiastic freshness, but the real surprise is the manner in which it manages to mine genuine pathos from the situation. It’s that balance between silliness and sincerity that elevates the movie from good to great.

It’s certainly a well-made movie, with director Barbakow flashing surprising chops for someone at the helm of their first feature. There are some great-looking screen pictures that embrace the environment in an interesting manner (and the first 10 minutes do double-duty, setting the scene for the film while also serving as a surprisingly effective homage to “The Graduate,” an unexpected delight). He also has a nice eye for comedic set pieces – there’s a dance number that’s great fun, just as one example. The fact that we get a dual perspective – one from eons in the time loop, another as a newcomer – unlocks a heretofore unexplored facet of looped storytelling.

As far as marriages of stars and vehicles go, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better combo than Samberg and this movie. We all knew that Samberg had a go-for-broke goofiness that lent itself well to broad comedy, but seeing his ability to access his more intimate, emotional side is eye-opening. He plays Nyles with a dirtbag charisma that makes the nihilism born of his untold years of repetition almost charming. It’s a great turn. Milioti matches him note for note, with her fresh exploration of the circumstances providing a sharp juxtaposition. She’s a perfect partner, both in humor and heart. The supporting cast shines as well, with a typically great performance from Simmons as the standout, though everyone involved brings something legit to the table.

“Palm Springs” is smart and funny, the kind of film that gets better the more you sit with it. It has plenty of laughs, but really shines when it digs deeper into the ramifications that come with loss and stagnation. In a world where so many of us are currently stuck on repeat, the idea that the value of meaning itself can erode through repetition is a timely one. The fact that its delivered with such cleverness – and such exceptional performances – makes “Palm Springs” a film worth watching again and again.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Saturday, 11 July 2020 10:27

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