Palm Springs (2020)

Dir. Max Barbakow. Starring Andy Samberg, Cristin Milioti, J.K. Simmons

Seeing as this is a recent release, and I genuinely think you’re more likely to enjoy this one if you don’t know much about it going in, a wholehearted “spoiler alert!”

So when you do a time loop movie and the action is more “romantic comedy” than it is “killing aliens,” you’re asking for comparisons to Groundhog Day, and the thing about Groundhog Day is that it doesn’t get less interesting once Phil starts reliving that day over and over again. It’s no secret that the best part of that movie is the sequence where Phil decides to do everything he can to save a homeless man from dying. He’s sure that if he just does the right thing, that if he’s there to give him CPR, or if he gives him another bowl of soup, he’ll be able to prolong that man’s life. It never works. That poor old guy always dies on February 2nd, no matter what Phil cooks up to save him. The film derives plenty of humor from Phil being forced to pop up again every morning like nothing has ever changed, obviously; if we’re doing that “choose your fighter” meme, then Phil taking a plunge in a pickup truck after kidnapping Punxsutawney Phil edges out him (human Phil) knowing all the answers on Jeopardy. Suffice it to say that the best in Groundhog Day is a result of the time loop plot. I can’t say the same about Palm Springs, a mostly tedious movie which I’ve just disappointed myself by remembering. I could go on for a while about how great Groundhog Day is, but when the fat lady sings Palm Springs has more in common with Garden State than Groundhog Day.

This is a movie that premiered at Sundance, so it should be no surprise that the film’s protagonist is a doofy white guy in his thirties with a much cuter girlfriend he’s not really into because she’s shallow, but also he’s just kind of checked out from the world, y’know? Nyles (Samberg) wakes up at the resort to the sight of Misty (Meredith Hagner) rubbing some lotion into her leg. He has a look on his face like he appreciates this particular view, but he can’t finish morning sex before she has to go finish getting ready for the wedding. She’s a bridesmaid. She comes to the wedding with some rhinestones stuck to her face and carrying a sign that says I’M A HUGE FLAKE WITH NO PERSPECTIVE – no, sorry, I’m hearing that’s what the rhinestones were for, in case we couldn’t tell otherwise. She’s absent for most of the day, and Nyles spends it hanging out. He gets onto a pool float shaped like a piece of pizza and drinks his beer. He comes to the wedding in the same outfit—red Hawaiian shirt, yellow shorts—he wore into the pool. Misty’s speech at the reception is well short of classical oratory, but it’s nothing compared to what might have happened if Sarah (Milioti) had had to go up there and give a speech off the cuff. Sarah, despite being the bride’s sister and the maid of honor, seems not to have known that she would have needed to give a speech. Personally, this surprised me, because she wasn’t even wearing the universal uniform of ditzes everywhere; there is not a single rhinestone on any part of her face. Incredibly, Nyles shows signs of life. He makes a nice little speech, saving Sarah from intense embarrassment, and they hit it off. They trek into the desert a little ways; they’re about to see if Nyles has any more success ejaculating with Sarah than he did playing Misty that morning when he is shot by an arrow. “Roy!” he shouts. The absolute suddenness of that arrow is the high point of the movie. It never gets any more interesting than that, not even when it’s explained where that arrow came from or who shot it.

It turns out, long story short, that Nyles has been living this same day over and over again after having wandered into a cave, that Roy is someone who accidentally got sucked into that cave while he was partying with Nyles and now blames him for it, and that Sarah makes the mistake of wandering into that cave as well and is stuck with the same curse that has befallen Nyles and Roy. What happens for the next, oh, half hour or so is exactly what you would think. Sarah freaks out and tries to break out in a few ways, but starts to accept the basically consequence-free life she’s sharing with Nyles, starts to find him appealing, and they hook up. Things happen which pull Sarah and Nyles apart, because that’s what having sex does to people, but there’s a stretch of this movie that’s basically nothing at all, an obligation the plot has to run us through Sarah’s discovery that this is all happening again and again.

In other words, it’s setup, and the payoff is ultimately that for life to be meaningful there must be consequences for what you do. This is something which I think a bright child could tell you without ever having seen Groundhog Day, and yet that’s all the movie’s got. It’s clear enough where it’s aiming. Nyles, despite how bored he is, despite how much he dislikes Misty, despite how many times he has relived this day, is used to it. More than that, he even likes it. He has no responsibilities, and it comes with a far greater power than he would wield anywhere else. It turns out that before Sarah got caught in the time loop, he’d slept with her some colossal number of times; the speech he uses to save her bacon is the grease he needs to make that wheel start turnin’. It’s an admission which Sarah takes pretty hard—rather than continue on with him she chooses to walk in front of a Mack truck—and for good reason. Sarah stopped being an agent once he got stuck in that loop, and there is something deeply suspicious, perhaps even rapey, about him going back to her over and over again by playing the same cards, knowing that she will programmatically deliver what he wants. There are vending machines that require more effort and personal cost to operate than what he does to her. Nyles is not a bad guy—no doofy white guy in his thirties with a much cuter girlfriend and so on is ever a “bad guy,” because that would require some self-reflection on the part of the people who get their movies played at Sundance—but he is aimless, and his aimlessness has dulled him to the point where he’s willing to choose absolute safety over a real life. You’ll never guess what Sarah convinces him is more important by the end of the movie.

I enjoy Andy Samberg. Before watching Brooklyn Nine-Nine became a really unpleasant way to kill time for me, he was what kept me watching episodes of a show that devolved into catchphrases much too quickly. I liked him a lot on SNL. He’s at his best when he’s a man-child or when he’s totally absurd, and he is neither one of those things in this movie. He’s Zach Braff in Garden State, but without the benefit of sharing the screen with Ian Holm to make that dead-eyed ennui stick a little further. When Andy Samberg tries to win an Oscar, it will not be far off from this meh performance about a meh guy. Cristin Milioti is much the brighter star in this movie, in large part because that character is richer. I say that with some level of hesitation, because “richer” in this case means “slept with her sister’s fiance the night before the wedding,” which is the kind of thing people in movies think only people in movies would do because it’s so ridiculous. In practice this means that Milioti gets to play some kind of remorse, some yearning to be a better person than she is. It’s an instinct that is absent from Nyles, and therein lies the trouble. It’s all in service of something we’ve all seen before. Not to beat this dead rodent any further, but in Groundhog Day one of the key reasons why Phil wanted to become a better person, in the end, was because becoming a better person meant he might have a chance with Rita, who was not going to slum around in any serious way with a louse like the Phil who rolled into town on the original February 2nd. It’s up to Phil to decide to change himself, which he does after a long time spent going through the same stages we see Sarah going through in Palm Springs. Not only does Sarah come to the conclusion that she does want some stakes back in her life much quicker than Phil does, but she does it in a way that keeps Nyles from having to do any kind of meaningful work. There’s a scene with Roy where Nyles learns about contentment (basically contentment is having enough money to live in the burbs with your nuclear family, a message as progressive as a sitcom about friendly, well-meaning cops), but it’s Sarah who brings Nyles back to reality after having learned quantum theory and procured C-4, apparently, in order to rescue the two of them from reliving this day forever. The flagellating, regretful speech that Nyles has to give because this is a romantic comedy hinges on a joke about how much punctuation he’s using. I don’t know about you, but nothing gets me giggling faster than whether someone should use a period or an exclamation point.

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