'Palm Springs': Film Review | Sundance 2020

Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
A surprising time-loop crowdpleaser.

Max Barbakow's narrative feature debut traps Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti in a desert-set 'Groundhog Day' scenario.

In the words of the brilliant adventurer-physicist Buckaroo Banzai, "Wherever you go, there you are." This holds true even if where you're going is, as a somewhat less brilliant voyager puts it, "one of those infinite-time-loop situations you mighta heard about." That lesser intellect is Andy Samberg's Nyles, stuck in a rut in Max Barbakow's thoroughly enjoyable rom-com Palm Springs. More sincerely philosophical than most of its fellow Groundhog Day descendants, the film doesn't simply use its fantasy conceit as a pathway to third-act redemption; instead, it gives some serious consideration to the question of how one could live with one's own damaged self, if stuck in eternal stasis and denied the escape hatch of death. Pointlessness, isolation and the guarantee that no one will ever understand your plight may not sound like the makings of a laugh-filled heartwarmer, but in the hands of Barbakow and screenwriter Andy Siara, it is.

Nyles is stuck reliving something far worse than the annual visit of Punxsutawney Phil: a near-stranger's wedding. When we meet him, he has already lived hundreds or thousands of iterations of the day, which explains how little he cares about impressing fellow guests at the tony, desert-estate affair. He dresses for the event in shorts and Bermuda shirt, pops cans of beer during the ceremony and casually steps up to toast the newlyweds when the maid of honor Sarah (Cristin Milioti) is too drunk to do it. Then he makes some suave moves on the dance floor, swoops over to Sarah and convinces her to sneak off into the hills with him. Perhaps he's had a lot of practice at this.

Let's leap past some fun stuff to the punchline: The next morning, when Nyles awakens to the same sights he's seen countless times, Sarah's having the same experience in another room. She's now trapped in this day as well, and (as will be explained later in the film), she has many more reasons to dread the wedding day than he does. She's furious with Nyles, who eventually calms things down enough to explain he has already tried every possible way to end this phenomenon. "We have no choice," he assures her, but to "learn how to suffer existence." Thank God every beer can he guzzles will be full again tomorrow.

Putting two attractive people together in this situation solves a moral dilemma inherent in the time-loop genre: If the boy can try an infinite number of things to make the girl fall for him, is she really a participant in the relationship? The tweaks to the format don't stop there — a flashback to one of Nyles' wilder nights, with a wedding guest played by J.K. Simmons, explains there are complications to his suffer-existence plan — but that alone would justify yet another movie employing this familiar premise.

A question burns in the minds of anyone who's seen more than a couple of these live-die-restart films: Is the "let's do every dumb, life-threatening thing we can imagine!" montage any good? Answer: It's among the best. The script offers some truly novel hijinks even before imagining the myriad ways one might wreck a young couple's perfect, special day.

Even here, though, the pic's doing some thinking while making you laugh: In a troubled moment, as Sarah is taking frustrations out on others, Nyles urges her to reconsider: It doesn't matter that your victims won't remember your meanness when the day resets. You'll remember, and it won't make existence any easier.

That exchange comes in the middle of the biggest decision these two will face. Since they're stuck waking up in the same house every day for eternity, is it crazy or ideal to start sleeping together? Think twice before answering; breaking up won't be fun. Movie logic says one thing — and make no mistake, this is a crowd-pleasing commercial comedy — but Nyles has been around the block maybe thousands of times. He knows a thing or two. That he's still dumber than Sarah makes Palm Springs a very fun place to get stuck.

Production companies: Party Over Here, Limelight
Cast: Andy Samberg, Cristin Milioti, J.K. Simmons, Meredith Hagner, Camila Mendes, Tyler Hoechlin
Director: Max Barbakow
Screenwriter: Andy Siara
Producers: Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, Becky Sloviter, Jorma Taccone, Dylan Sellers, Chris Parker
Director of photography: Quyen "Q" Tran
Production designer: Jason Kisvarday
Costume designer: Colin Wilkes
Editors: Matthew Friedman, Andrew Dickler
Composer: Matthew Compton
Casting director: Allison Jones
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Sales: Mikey Schwartz-Wright, UTA

90 minutes