by Ken Bakely
The foremost intriguing aspect of Max Barbakow’s Palm Springs is in how it approaches the time loop narrative, dashing away the structures of the formula set by Groundhog Day and exploring new and unique territory within its central concept. The movie focuses less on the entrance into the loop and more the implications that it poses; later on, it evaluates the headspace of one taking the incentive to try and escape the loop when they do, and under what circumstances. For all the silly comedy and banter that make up the energy of the movie, Andy Siara’s script dives more into the philosophical implications of its setup than so many others of its ilk. What helps is that it begins without feeling the need to introduce the idea to the viewer. The setting is the titular resort town, the scene is a destination wedding therein. Sarah (Cristin Milioti), the sister of the bride, enters the loop, and upon the startling revelation of cycling through the same day again, finds that Nyles (Andy Samberg), another guest, has been in the loop for some indeterminate period already. He briefly gives as much of an explanation as possible, recounts the near-infinite set of efforts he’s given to exit the loop (all without success, of course), and concluding that there’s seemingly nothing that can be done, adopts a resigned and nihilistic approach to his fate.
Their differing personalities, backgrounds, and outlooks to their predicament certainly come to shape where Palm Springs goes from there, but there’s also a lot to be said about the moment-to-moment comedy that comes from the various exploits they undergo – either to settle pre-existing business with the other attendees of the wedding, or to merely pass the time and rack up the unique experiences available to someone who can die at any time they like, and wake up again that morning with nothing changed. The nature of Sarah and Myle’s bond changes throughout, and we learn much about the complex and messy natures of their competing worldviews and their individual relationship histories. Samberg and Milioti excel at developing their characters and building comic and romantic chemistry that feels impressively lived-in. A formidable supporting cast, which most prominently includes J. K. Simmons as a mysterious figure whose involvement in the time loop saga takes a few unexpected developments, is roundly commendable as well. The performances are, most importantly, individualistic and adaptable. As the concept of the film requires the notion of a hermetically sealed world – in which no characters other than our main two in the loop are ever subject to any meaningful change – it’s important that a particular balance be struck when considering how to construct the nature of this environment; there’s a contrast between the surreal liminality of Sarah and Nyle’s life and the soon-memorized routines of the wedding party and guests, which itself seems to serve a broad comic juxtaposition.
Much of Palm Springs is based on peculiar ironies, even down to the setting itself: there’s something darkly humorous about how Sarah and Nyles are stuck in a stifling, constricting, and possibly eternal pattern of repetition in the vast and open setting of the desert. There are countless shots of them driving, knowing they can travel as far as they want and as fast as they like, but they will wake up back in their respective hotel rooms no matter what. The movie doesn’t shy away from that sense of existential exhaustion, but though the characters may struggle and give into its punishing monotony, Barbakow keeps the pace of the film fresh and fast, always curious to examine the changes in their psyches and outlooks within each cycle, as each new experience is gained. The observations on how its characters change and grow within this environment are rich and resonant – both individually and in their relationship to each other. Barbakow and company ensure that we can easily follow the human foundations in this fantastical setting, and, taken with the broad comedy of the script, attempt a uniquely challenging balancing act that, for the most part, succeeds with an incredible regularity. The film sets ambitious goals both in theme and form, and it skillfully meets them.