A film review by Craig J. Koban December 31, 2020


2020, R, 87 mins.

Andy Samberg as Nyles  /  Cristin Milioti as Sarah  /  J.K. Simmons as Roy  /  Tyler Hoechlin as Abe  /  Camila Mendes as Tala  /  Peter Gallagher as Howard  /  Meredith Hagner as Misty

Directed by Max Barbakow  /  Written by Andy Siara

Wait a tick...there's something awfully familiar about this film.  Haven't I seen it some place before? 

Not only that...but there's something awfully familiar about this film.  Haven't I see it some place before? 

Meta sarcasm aside, the new indie comedy PALM SPRINGS does indeed bare a striking resemblance to the iconic time looping comedy GROUNDHOG DAY, which featured a then highly novel premise of a disgruntled weatherman re-living the same day over and over again in a town he despises on an endless, purgatory-like replay.  

That film has spawned a whole series of imitators, some of which have been fairly decent (like the horror-comedy iteration HAPPY DEATH DAY or the wondrously underrated sci-fi thriller version in the superb EDGE OF TOMORROW), and now comes PALM SPRINGS, which, somewhat to its discredit, really doesn't stray away from the core basic premise of these time lopping films.  That, and it perhaps spends a bit too much time having characters explain why this phenomena is happening, not to mention that - on a level of cohesive tone - this film awkwardly hops between bleak melodrama, frat house lewdness, and sitcom shenanigans a bit too much for my tastes.  But, what it does have as its secret weapon is the dynamic tandem of stars Andy Samberg (also co-producing with his Lonely Island squadmates) and Cristin Milioti, and their fluid chemistry and deadpan wit helps override PALM SPRING's obvious deficiencies. 

Also, isn't it doubly ironic that Samberg and Bill Murray are SNL alumni that have both made time looping comedies? 

When we first meet Samberg's Nyles it appears like any other random and ordinary day.  He wakes up in his Palm Springs hotel room and tries to have sex with his ditzy girlfriend (Meredith Hanger), but with unsatisfying results.  He drowns his sorrows in alcohol, never a good sign first thing in the morning, and later proceeds to a wedding of Tala (Camilla Mendes) and Abe (Tyler Hoechlin).  Nyles has no ambitions whatsoever to be a proverbial "good" wedding guest, and decides to crash it with horribly inappropriate casual attire and his overall inebriated demeanor.  He does, however, have a "meet cute" of sorts with Tala's sister, Sarah (Milioti), who seems to be just as downbeat and disinterested in the wedding as he is.  They decide to hang out, pound back more booze, and then proceed to the desert.  Out of nowhere, Nyles is attacked by a stranger with a bow and arrow (bare with me) and takes his injured body to a nearby cave that contains an eerily mysterious glow...and then disappears.   



Now, what we do learn is that poor sad sack Nyles has been living this day - with various tweaks and adjustments - over and over...and over again for what seems like an eternity, which is arguably what has caused his general screw everybody and life mentality.  Much to Nyles' shock, he discovers that Sarah followed him into the same cave and now finds herself repeating the same day he is over and over again.  Of course, this leads the frazzled Sarah to ask Nyles just about every question one would have when it comes to the hows and whys of such a thorny predicament...and whether there's a way to stop it.  Nyles casually tells her that escape is impossible and - like GROUNDHOG DAY's Phil Connors before him - he's tried everything: Going to sleep, knocking himself unconscious, and, yes, allowing himself to get killed or committing suicide (oh, and if you're going to get yourself killed in, say, a head-on collision, make sure it's an insta-death situation, because spending the rest of the day in the ICU waiting to be zipped back is a bummer).  Nyles does explain that he has tried to spice of his repeated days with some variety, including (but not limited to) having sex with most of the wedding guest (yes, male and female).  But nothing seems to have gotten himself out of this nightmarish existentialist horror show.  But, with a new sidekick in Sarah, things slowly change for him, even though she initially wants nothing of it.  "I don't want tomorrow to be today.  I want tomorrow to be tomorrow!" she pleads in one of the film's funniest lines. 

I think that PALM SPRINGS really hits its creative strides when we bare witness to the shared chemistry between this pair of misfit time shifters that are forced to stick together as a coping mechanism.  Once Nyles reveals all of the secrets and advice to Sarah about his repetative days and how to cope with them then the screenplay delves into Sarah's ever-expanding fascination with all of the possibilities contained within.  Of course, Nyles is kind of a Debbie Downer (can you blame him?) and has survived far too many suicide attempts to remember, which Sarah grows to empathize with after her own attempts still lead her back to waking up in bed the same morning as before.  But the two do bond, in their own bizarre way, and start to experiment with just about everything in their environment around them to pass the time and obvious boredom.  Plus, they're both trying to stave off the nagging anxiety of never being able to escape this living hell scenario.  PALM SPRINGS offers up some highly amusing sequences showing them acclimating to each other and the monotony of their days, like, for instance, crashing a local red neck biker bar with some wild dancing...or flying and crashing a plane...or manipulating the wedding guests in mischievous and unethical ways, seeing as all of their action are consequence-free. 

PALM SPRINGS also doesn't shy away from the inherent darkness of the underlining material either, and for as much laugh out loud hilarity to be had here the film does ground us in some unexpectedly sincere and tender moments of heartache.  Deep down, Nyles is an unendingly depressed chap that's been cursed with loneliness and hopelessness for way too long, and Sarah herself has her own skeletons in her closet that come to the forefront throughout the course of the film.  Plus, as the pair become unavoidably romantically involved the uncomfortable notion of trying to have a relationship on constant repeated autopilot rears its ugly head.  How can a couple grow and evolve if they can't grow old, mature, evolve, marry, have kids, and, of course, escape the same day?  These characters can't hurt themselves permanently, per se, because they're essentially immortal because of the time loop, but the emotional wounds they end up inflicting on each other cuts deeper. 

On a positive, I will concede that PALM SPRINGS isn't totally carefree and whimsical with its premise as much as other GROUNDHOG DAY clones like HAPPY DEATH DAY, and we really grow to learn the sheer madness that typifies these lost souls and just how much of a taxing psychological toll that it places on them.  To say that this approach might alienate fans of the Lonely Island's unique brand of spirited tomfoolery (makers of some of the best least-seen comedies of the last decade in the wondrously silly HOT ROD and the savvy music industry satire POPSTAR: NEVER STOP NEVER STOPPING) might be an understatement.  That's not to say that comedies like this have to completely shy away from the darker underbelly of the material, but PALM SPRINGS sometimes wants to have its cake and eat it too, which leads to some jarring tonal shifting that frequently doesn't work.  It contains vignettes of scatological goofiness and debauchery followed by moments of bleak emotional despair...that are then followed by lots of exchanges about the meaninglessness of everything...and so on.  This movie commendably tries to do a lot within its already short time frame, but more often than not its segueing between slapstick and heartache feels unnatural.  And I could have done without any explanation whatsoever about how this looping curse happened and does continually happen; as the film builds towards a third act and has Sarah and Nyles plotting a convoluted scheme to escape it I kind of checked out.  Some mysteries are best left unknown and ambiguous, something that GROUNDHOG DAY wisely understood. 

But, hot damn, Samberg and Milioti are gangbusters solid in this film, with the former doing a surprisingly effective job portraying his doomed character as one that straddles between being a goofy prankster and a deeply unnerved and jaded victim of cruel circumstance.  I do feel that Milioti is the film's true standout, and for as much charming chemistry that she has with her co-star she brings a level of snarky unpredictability to her role that suits it well.  Both of them combined make for an authentically rendered troubled couple that's desperately trying to acclimate to a highly unusual situation.  Oh, and J.K. Simmons also shows up in a small, but key role that I can't really elaborate on without going into spoilers, other than to say that a little bit of Simmons goes a long way in any film.  PALM SPRINGS was a huge critical darling when it was released earlier this year on Hulu, and it certainly has more compelling tricks up its sleeves than I was expecting out of its GROUNDHOG DAY wannabe narrative.  Again, I don't think it finds thoroughly innovative ways to transcend the premise (most of the rules and conventions are dutifully in place) and it's not as clever as it think it is.  Nevertheless, the presence of the winning pair of Samberg and Milioti win out in the end and help smooth out the film's road bumps.  It's an absurdist romcom worth visiting, maybe not just over and over again. 

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