Compared to the bleak and cold atmosphere of the small town of Punxsutawney in Groundhog Day, or the war torn Earth in The Edge of Tomorrow, or the macabre night party of Russian Doll, the California of Palm Springs is bright and airy. Niles (Andy Samberg) spends the day before a wedding acting both checked out and passionately charismatic. In one scene, he gloomily masturbates to his girlfriend repeatedly saying “shit” as she can’t find…whatever it is (it doesn’t seem to matter to Niles either). The next minute, he is giving what some at the wedding believe to be the greatest wedding speech they’ve ever heard.
And all of it still wearing a bathing suit and Hawaiian shirt…from the pool.
Sarah (Cristin Milioti) is the bride’s older sister. She hears this speech by Niles (who covers for her) and is perplexed why Niles seems to make continuous eye contact with her throughout the whole thing. When a couple night time twists go from hilarity to spontaneous romance, some dark humor erupts, and Niles finds himself covered in arrows shot by a man in camoflauge named Roy. “I’ll get you Roy!” he screams, as Sarah is understandably in shock. Niles runs into a cave emitting a strange warm glow, and Sarah, concerned for his safety, enters as well. When Sarah wakes up, she realizes that it is the same day. The wedding is still on, and through the window she can see Niles in that stupid bathing suit, drinking a beer and lounging in the sun.
It’s a time loop movie. Whether it is because of the rise of video games, or the profound influence of Groundhog Day, we seem obsessed with this genre. TV shows like Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm perhaps do the same job of making nothing happen, but these time loop scenarios are a particular kind of nothing. You don’t see time loop movies take place in agrarian England, do you? No. They are set in modern civilization, where God is dead and our vocabulary for meaning in the age of reason has not quite caught up. The underlying question in each of these is usually: how is this any different from what we do all the time?
The notable exceptions are Happy Death Day and The Edge of Tomorrow, where it seems self-centered characters have something to learn from the experience.
Granted, they all do, which reveals the true cheapness of the trick. In those two films, we enjoy the particular torture of the characters (Tom Cruise especially) where they are thrown around until they achieve enlightenment.
In Palm Springs, everyone is screwing everybody. As Sarah interrogates Niles on his time in the loop thus far, Samberg hilariously shifts between a lovable Winnie-the-Pooh who is satisfied with nothing, and a mischievous planner. But unfortunately he cannot win over everyone, and he relates the story of Roy, who also happened to be at the wedding and had also unknowingly entered the cave with Niles. So all three are stuck in the loop. Roy admires Niles’s youthful hedonism, Niles admires Sarah’s approval of his antics, and Sarah eventually comes to internalize Roy’s destructive anger. “Better other destructive than self destructive” John Updike wrote. The story deliberates whether it is possible for them not just to make the No Exit turn out of the loop, but out of their personalities as well.
But all things must end, even a quantum physics crisis. In Groundhog Day, his self-actualization led to the perfect day, culminating in expressing his true feelings for a longtime work colleague.
In The Edge of Tomorrow, they use the time loops to find the alien hive source, and take the fight to the enemy.
In Happy Death Day, the true killer is revealed.
In Russian Doll, the character reconciles with her mother.
And in Palm Springs, a similar result occurs. In each of these there is Vivian Gornick’s situation and story. Sure, there are literal quantum issues that have to be resolved, but the real loop is a character’s relationship to his or herself.
Deep down, time loop movies are not all that different from any other movie. The question is, does the time loop allow a moral to be fun and engaging? In The Edge of Tomorrow the answer is unequivocally yes, as the loop is a commentary on war, PTSD, and the sort of addiction that comes from modern combat.
Russian Doll uses the time loop to say something dramatic about mental health, and that loops are a kind of rumination that many people go through already. Having a poor sense of explanatory self, or not being aware of the power of cognitive behavioral therapy, leads to life as a sort of never ending loop of poor decisions.
Unfortunately, Palm Springs has less to say about the world, but that doesn’t eliminate its merit as a comedy. Far from it, Groundhog Day in hindsight seems tame and less transgressive compared to this modern rendition. Where Bill Murray’s darkest moment was jumping off a roof to attempt to end the loop, Sarah and Niles get that thought out of the way in the first act. Niles takes off his seatbelt and presses his face near the airbag. “What are you doing?” Sarah says. “You want a quick death if you’re going to do it,” Niles says. “Dying is easy but the pain is real.”
And I suppose that is what makes the film an excellent comfort food romp. In the midst of all this coronavirus headache, where everyday really does seem like a never ending nightmare of cases and poor responses, Niles is not just the enabler to Sarah’s plans, Niles is the Virgil of Sarah’s headaches, on a quest to show us a better way to live life, one that is much less concerned with becoming and more simply with being. Niles tries to convince Sarah that while pain is mandatory, suffering can be optional.
And how he’s proven wrong by Sarah is the power shift that makes the movie worth watching.
Some last minute comments then: Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti are excellent. I was grateful that the jokes were quick, sharp, and no nonsense (or…maybe…all nonsense?). The movie thankfully does not hammer a joke repeatedly it thinks is funny, but rather addresses your needs. The comedy is not exhausting, because it provides that turn to “Drama-dy” when it needs to. In an hour and a half, you get a very needed dose of laughs, and every aspect, from the acting to the writing to the production, it’s all there.
More than any time loop movie, Palm Springs is the ideal of the distinctly Western tale. The house is an Airbnb masterpiece, with a pool and blender. And although you may get tired of the salmon canapé, you may never get tired of having Niles and Sarah as company as you attend the wedding over and over. What’s strange about the time loop genre is the regret you have about it ending in each one. You wish you had more time. While watching Palm Springs, I felt that more than I have with any other iteration. That’s got to count for something.