It may, at first, seem like you’ve seen Hulu’s new comedy film Palm Springs before.
Palm Springs, starring Brooklyn Nine-Nine‘s Andy Samberg, directed by Max Barbakow, written by Andy Siara, and co-produced by Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone, thus making this a “Lonely Island Classics” film, is, as Samberg’s character pronounces early on, “one of those infinite time-loop situations you might have heard about.”
Like Groundhog Day, like Edge of Tomorrow, like Russian Doll, where the hero is reliving the same day over and over again and consequences don’t matter much. Palm Springs is going to assume you’ve seen one of those already, or at least are familiar with the general principle. But when we first “meet” Samberg’s Nyles, he’s already been repeating the same day countless times, and that explains why he’s acting so weird. Skipping the whole “what is happening to me?!?!” origin is one of the sharp ways Palm Springs keeps things fresh. Another is he’s not going through it alone.
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The earliest scenes show Nyles acting a bit rude on somebody else’s wedding day in the desert. His girlfriend (Meredith Hagner), beautiful and self-centered, is one of the bridesmaids. He seems focused, however, on wooing the sister of the bride, Sarah (Cristin Milioti), and knows just what to say to get her interested. Just like Bill Murray did with Andie MacDowell. Things get weird, though, when, unlike the model story, Nyles accidentally gets Sarah caught in the cosmic anomaly with him.
The rules are that whenever they go to sleep, or if they die, they awake as they did the day before. No matter what they do, it’s “see ya tomorrow,” even if one dies earlier than the other. Dying quickly loses its fear factor, so sometimes someone will choose a swift death over sitting in traffic. But pain is real, and as in “our world,” nothing is worse than a slow stay at the hospital.
There’s another rule, which is they can restart the day by going in “the cave,” which is some sort of unexplained time vacuum that opened in the middle of nowhere thanks to an earthquake. Oh, and there’s someone else in the time loops, too, an older gent named Roy (J.K. Simmons) who absolutely hates Nyles because he blames Nyles for getting him stuck in there. (This isn’t wholly fair of Roy, but it is understandable.) Roy only shows up once in a while to torture or kill Nyles, because he begins each day hours away in Irvine.
Sarah is, at first, more spooked than angry for getting stuck in the meaningless loop. That is because she and Nyles were clearly both quite unhappy in their pre-loop world, so after the initial shock, they realize this isn’t that much worse. In fact, they manage to spend a nice chunk of time having fun. Palm Springs is, despite all the sci-fi dressing, a love story.
And this is where the movie truly sings, when it leans into its delicious fantasy. What would you do if there were truly no consequences for your actions. Palm Springs sinks its teeth into this in extremely funny and gratifying ways but, of course, as I’m sure you could predict, there are consequences, at least in interpersonal relationships, even in a pocket universe where time has no meaning.
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I don’t want to get too specific, but there are additional story wrinkles that are revealed to us as we sit and watch the film from our rather mundane linear perspective. They aren’t exactly twists, but they are quite strong aha! moments. The first I didn’t see coming, the second I kinda had a hunch, and it was extremely gratifying when that puzzle piece snapped into place. This movie is only 90 minutes, but it does have the bearing of an epic. I also had no idea how it was going to end, but found that the conclusion was quite fulfilling.
Audiences have taken deep philosophical readings of Groundhog Day for decades, and Russian Doll also lent itself to some weighty interpretations. Palm Springs doesn’t swim too much in the religious pool, but without being heavy-handed (or losing its entertainment value) it works quite well as a grand symbol about love and relationships.
Samberg being funny and charming is nothing new, but the revelation to me was Milioti. The Fargo and Black Mirror/“USS Callister” alum absolutely nails the disaffected-but-lovable quality that, let’s face it, is sometimes a cliché role for women in comedies. She’s sarcastic and funny and isn’t doing an Aubrey Plaza imitation, she’s doing her own thing. Her chemistry with Samberg is off the charts. Even through I watched them over and over and over again in this, I’m itching for them to pair up another time.
TV Guide Rating: 5/5
Palm Springs premieres Friday, July 10 on Hulu.