(SPOILERS) How hard must it be to screw up a time-loop movie? Maybe it’s simply that I’ve limited myself to the superior ones, by and large, but the concept does seem to bring out the best in those running with it, even as they’re often – inevitably – following through variations of the same riffs, be they tragic or comic or a blend of the two. Palm Springs has drawn more overt comparisons with Groundhog Day than some of the purer SF takes because it is more demonstrably in the comedic realm, and also because its makers have invoked the Bill Murray-starrer through referencing the ways in which they’re departing from that template. This onus to be distinctive ultimately softens Palm Springs’ philosophical/thematic impact, but it also results in a more successful balancing act between its (ultimately) romantic leads.
And the movie has deservedly received a positive critical response, even if we’ll never know how it might have fared at the box office (a sleeper, most likely). Inevitably, at this stage in the time-loop subgenre, the distinguishing features, those that separate any new picture from its antecedents, become important. Most recently, the Happy Death Days offered smart and funny plays on the slasher movie. It looks as if this year’s Boss Level is having fun with the indestructibility aspect via ultra-violent action spectacle. Palm Springs finds Nyles (Andy Samberg), perhaps millennia into his loop, entirely resigned to its unchanging routine, give or take the occasional horrific demise at the hands of vengeful Roy (JK Simmons, typically superlative), an individual Nyles unwisely invited into the loop during his earlier, more impetuous days.
The action revolves around the suitably oasis-like titular resort, where Nyles is attending wedding celebrations with girlfriend Misty (Meredith Hagner), who is cheating on him; every day for him is the wedding of Tala (Camila Mendes) and Abe (Superman Tyler Hoechlin). Nyles doesn’t care about the girlfriend situation, just as he doesn’t care about anything anymore (“The only way to really live within this is to embrace the fact that nothing matters”); you know, it’s a metaphor for disenfranchised, nihilistic youth (or the early middle aged). Or something. His situation changes crucially when fellow attendee Sarah (Cristin Milioti) follows him into the loop (sourced in a magical cave).
She wants out – as we eventually learn, she cannot face waking up each morning with the bridegroom, her sister’s husband-to-be – and won’t be put off by Nyles’ blithe stoicism. Indeed, the most refreshing part of Palm Springs is Nyles’ indifference to this eternal lot. Albeit, indifference in a very “Do no harm” way; as we discover, he isn’t into retribution the way Roy is, or causing mass carnage, or particularly hurting people at all. Which is why he regrets letting slip to Sarah “Oh please, you fucked me a thousand times”, having previously told her he couldn’t recall if they’d slept together. As he warns, “We remember. We have to deal with the things we do”. But this flawed stir and repeat is, to him, better than “A world of death and poverty. Debilitating emotional stress”.
I’d read reviews suggesting the picture really takes flight with its wackier elements: dinosaurs; a bomb in a cake. But it’s actually relatively grounded in respect of its conceit, closer to Happy Death Day in opting to keep its eye on the prize. The anecdotal extravagance is often better than the visual (Nyles relating how he once “smoked a lot of crystal and made it all the way to Equatorial Guinea”). The most notable detours come via Roy (“Keep running, shitbird. I will always find you”), at one point sandwiched between a couple of vehicles by Sarah as he attempts his latest mutilation of Nyles. This intervention rather charmingly leads him to reconsider his Nyles-murder rampage, reflecting on the suggestion that “There’s nothing worse than slowly dying in the ICU”. The scene where Nyles, now bereft without Sarah, visits Roy in Invie is a rather sweet illustration of the acceptance of one’s lot (“This was always a good day, you know”), even if it culminates in an immolation for old time’s sake.
Palm Springs occasionally teeters into unnecessary crudity (you notice it when it’s there, ejaculating penis tattoos and all, as it has been doing very well without such crutches, thank you very much). There’s also an undoubted tendency to fall back on the old favourite of the montage sequence as a prop (on the other hand, the musical cues are occasionally inspired, such as Kate Bush’s Cloudbusting). But crucially, Samberg and Milioti have bags of energy and great chemistry (Groundhog Day’s one demerit is that Murray and McDowall had none) and the arid, isolated desert setting of director Max Barbakow and writer Andy Siara’s movie is a crucial character in itself.
Naturally, it’s a key to Palm Springs that two lost souls find each other, but I think Barbakow and Siara rather do their material a disservice by overtly disavowing any kind of spiritual resonance. At one point early on, Nyles proclaims himself the Antichrist, suggesting responsibility for an earthquake he knows is coming (“I’m just kidding. There is no God”). He goes further, mocking the idea of greater meaning in their experience (“It could be purgatory, or a glitch in the simulation that we’re both in; I don’t know”). He’s also quick to dismiss concerns over Sarah’s state of mind (putting it down to fear of nanotech is one suggestion). So it makes sense that the movie has nothing more on its mind vis-a-vis the meaning of life than two people being together, particularly two people who scoff at the very notion of such meant-to-be bliss And the rather prosaic solution to their temporal situation? Sarah calls upon “science” and blows up the cave.
None of which ultimately detracts from Barbakow and Siara’s movie being short, sweet and very funny. Any suggestion of a sequel with JK Simmons (which would surely be glorious) appears halted in its tracks by his mid-credits appearance, but it’s nice that they remembered him. Palm Springs has rightly received attention on the awards circuit, albeit mostly from those who recognise comedy as a distinct category. Which is unfair, as it’s better written and performed – and perhaps even more meaningful, notwithstanding the previous paragraph – than most of the “so-worthy” fare receiving the plaudits this season.