Review: Palm Springs

Director: Max Barbakow

Stars: Cristin Milioti, Andy Samberg, J.K. Simmons

The time-loop conceit commonly referred to as the ‘Groundhog Day’ device endures, enough to be credited as a subgenre in its own right. For a time, any TV show with a remotely fantastical element had a go at it (Star Trek: The Next GenerationThe X-FilesBuffy the Vampire Slayer). Recent horror sleeper hit Happy Death Day applied it to the machinations of the slasher for some inventive fun, while Edge of Tomorrow flexed its potential for all-out action. Max Barbakow’s feature debut Palm Springs is the latest to incorporate this idea of an inescapable day. Natty romcom shenanigans are on offer this time, appropriately bringing it full circle to the day(s) of Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell.

“Today, tomorrow, yesterday, it’s all the same”. So says Nyles (Andy Samberg) while lounging in the pool on the morning of his forever-day at a Palm Springs resort, waiting for the wedding he’s there to attend. Later, he hooks up with Sarah (Cristin Milioti), sister of the bride. The pair’s attempt at a desert tryst is improbably interrupted when Nyles is shot with an arrow. Before you know it, Sarah’s sucked into the same unending cycle that, it transpires, Nyles has been living in for quite some time…

Having one half of this twosome already accustomed to the rules of the game proves incredibly handy, allowing Barbakow to dispense with the time-consuming (pun intended) initial laps that typify these stories, in which the audience is often well-ahead of the characters anyway. He gets to cut straight to the montage phase, as Sarah tries desperately to escape her inescapable fate. As a result, Milioti and Samberg bring very different energies. Nyles is resigned to the ouroboros he’s living in; Sarah is still prickly with impatience and resentment. Their dynamic is the cynic and the idealist. But then, guess what? In this infinite loop, dynamics keep changing…

Samberg’s comedic cache is well established. Milioti – superb in a small, heartbreaking role in year two of Fargo – is an excellent foil for him, with her look and attitude pitched at a mid-point between Aubrey Plaza and Natasha Lyonne. Between them and Barbakow’s eye for a well-delivered take, Palm Springs delivers the funny on an agreeably regular basis. There even a long but very giving punctuation joke – what more do you really want?

It also finds new ways of looking at the conundrum of the endlessly repeating day itself. Increasingly one gets the sense that, like it or not, Nyles and Sarah have found a way to live forever. A lot of Palm Springs makes hay from this sense of getting a consequence-free pass. As long as you can do it in a day, Nyles and Sarah can do anything. On the other hand, an eloquent moment from psychopathic time-looper Roy (J.K. Simmons) speaks to how limbo might as well be hell; never getting to see his kids grow up. For all it’s goofs and occasional crude humour, Palm Springs is thoughtful about its predicament, perhaps more-so than any iteration that’s preceded it.

For instance… what if someone didn’t want to leave an endlessly repeating day? Nyles’ growing attachment to Sarah is romantic, but also couched in his whole arrested-development persona; something he avoids fixing by taking supposed ownership of it. As the UK edges its way out of an on-and-off year of lockdowns, Palm Springs‘ delayed arrival on these shores turns out to be exceedingly on point. Unwittingly, it feels pertinent to the sense of anxiety many of us are feeling about returning to old routines after a long bout of restrictive repetition. Of all the movies to feel timely… (yeah, pun intended again).

For a film that’s about endless repetition, Barbakow manages to keep things fresh, playing fast and loose with structure and chronology even within his looping format. He fulfills both the rom and the com part of the movie’s promise and he even throws in just enough quantum theory for those approaching the piece as a sci-fi prospect. That side of things is the least developed, granted, but in all honesty that’s another strength. Happy Death Day 2U showed how bogged down a good time could become if you fixate on explaining it. No, Palm Springs is all about the heart and the joyous potential of its wild idea. Moving in circles has rarely seemed such fun.

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