Imagine living the same day of your life over and over, stuck within an hour and a half of Los Angeles but so closely nestled in paradise’s bosom that the drive isn’t worth the fuel. Now imagine that “over and over” extends beyond a number the human mind is capable of appreciating. Paradise becomes a sun-soaked Hell, a place endured and never escaped, where pizza pool floats are enervating torture devices and crippling alcoholism is a boon instead of a disease. So goes Max Barbakow’s Palm Springs.
Using Barbakow’s direction and Andy Siara’s script as filters, Palm Springs presents viewers with a blend of soft science fiction, raucous punchlines, and human drama, the last of these encompassing self-loathing, grief, love and high anxiety. Andy Samberg stars as Niles, a man clearly dissatisfied with his life as he wakes up the day of a wedding, has a perfunctory quickie with his young girlfriend, Misty (Meredith Hagner), and spends his day getting soused. Apparently Niles harbors a deep contempt for the institution of marriage. All the same, he tolerates the pomp and circumstances, makes it through the ceremony, and drops an impromptu toast on bride and groom to the heartwarming joy of all attending.
But Niles has a secret weapon: foreknowledge. He’s done this wedding before. Sarah (Cristin Milioti), the maid of honor, has only done it once, and learns to her peril after making merry into the wee hours with Niles that he’s stuck in a time loop, forced to face the wedding ad infinitum. Sarah blithely stumbles smack into the loop despite’ Niles attempts to warn her off, and after going through every single stage of grief in rapid order, resigns herself to spending forever enjoying drunken, meaningless antics in the desert.
Eventually, enjoyment amounts to jack shit because even forever in Palm Springs has its limits. But the film never stops being funny, even when the mood takes a downturn from zany good times to dejection. This is key. Even when the party ends and the reality of the scenario sinks in for Sarah, Palm Springs continues to fire jokes at a steady clip, only now they are weighted with appropriate gravity for a movie about two people doomed to maintain a holding pattern on somebody else’s happiest day. Nothing like a good ol’ fashioned time loop to force folks trapped in neutral to get retrospective on their personal statuses. For Niles, that means leaning in and making the most of his fate by drinking past excess and making speeches he doesn’t believe in to crowds of suckers in the thrall of matrimonial ecstasy. For Sarah, that means accepting the task of cleaning up her act, her “act” being an affair with the groom (Tyler Hoechlin), whose bride is her own sister, Tala (Camilla Mendes). Sarah has infinity on her side. Might as well try to make up for her sins, and then get busy trying to get back to a straight temporal line.
Sticking to formula, this isn’t a question of “if” but “when.” In the meantime, Palm Springs considers the ramifications of experiencing the same 24-hour period on repeat, and how that might change someone’s character. Samberg, for his part, girds his usual nonchalant wiseassery with an undercurrent of nihilism: Rather than a clown, he’s a sad clown, miserable to his core but putting forth an effort to hide it. On the extreme end of the spectrum, there’s Roy (J.K. Simmons), one of Tala’s wedding guests, who like Sarah also winds up in the loop—he’s actually in it before her—but reacts to this rotten turn of events by hunting Niles like an animal. An hour into the movie, Roy reckons with his horrible actions, accepting that he has to live with them but also accepting that life as he knows it, anchored in Irvine with his wife and kids, is actually pretty damn sweet.
But Palm Springs suggests that growth can’t happen in a vacuum, that when your actions have no consequences, becoming a better you is impossible. Grant that these and other such deep thoughts are explored against a backdrop of charming goofball hijinks, and that the movie’s sobriety is tempered by the hilarity of, for instance, Niles taking an arrow to the leg or Tala losing her front teeth just before walking down the aisle. Still, Siara’s central thesis resonates. After spending four months in quarantine, and with at least a few more to go, viewers may unexpectedly relate to Niles and Sarah’s dilemma, or maybe they’ll feel wistful at the sight of people dancing in close proximity to one another without fear of death. Either way, they’ll probably think twice about a wedding in the California desert anytime soon.
Director: Max Barbakow
Writer: Andy Siara
Starring: Andy Samberg, Cristin Milioti, J.K. Simmons, Meredith Hagner, Camila Mendes, Peter Gallagher, Dale Dickey, Tyler Hoechlin
Release Date: July 10, 2020
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.