Palm Springs is set during a never-ending day. Sorry to give away the big plot point, which comes some 15 minutes into Max Barbakow’s wonderful new comedy, but that premise feels pertinent today in a way that it didn’t when the movie premiered at Sundance six months ago. The film belongs to the growing canon of time-loop stories, which ensnare their characters in a repeating cycle from which there’s no discernible escape. Life proceeds normally enough, but its rhythms are unchanged; the monotony is comical and then unbearable. It’s not hard to view all art through the focus of the pandemic right now, but in Palm Springs, the subtext is practically text: We are all trapped.
That may sound terrifying, but what’s most impressive about the movie (out today on Hulu) is how charming and genuinely funny it is. It keeps all the beats of a salty-sweet romantic comedy without ignoring the crushing implications of having to wake up to the same morning over and over again. Where other time-loop movies (Groundhog Day, Edge of Tomorrow, Happy Death Day) were about their characters gaining some karmic sense of self-improvement, Palm Springs is about how reality can feel endless, and how being an adult involves cherishing the truth that a lot of things will never change.
The film is set in the titular California desert resort town, where Nyles (played by Andy Samberg) and Sarah (Cristin Milioti) are apathetic guests at a cloyingly cheerful wedding. Sarah seems haunted by her past, while Hawaiian-shirt-clad Nyles is terminally over it; at night, she foolishly follows him into a magical cave and gets sucked into a time loop, one that he’s long been trapped in. Nyles is happy to have someone to share his curse with, but Sarah, being new to the experience, is more motivated to find a way out.
Early on, they take a drive to get away from it all, weighing the predicament they’re in, and Nyles sums up his take on the situation. “The only way to really live in this is to embrace the fact that nothing matters,” he says. “Well, then what’s the point of living?” Sarah counters. “Well, we kind of have no choice but to live. So I think your best bet is just to learn how to suffer existence,” he replies. He’s been doomed to nihilism by the Twilight Zone rules he has to live under—if he falls asleep or dies, he just wakes right back up where he started the morning. But it’s a conversation with all kinds of implications about how we approach our lives.
The central pair in Palm Springs are in their early 30s, relatively indifferent to their accomplishments in life so far, and struggling to figure out their path forward. The situation laid out in the screenwriter Andy Siara’s terrific script is fantastical, but he understands that it can double for every sense of feeling stuck that comes with adulthood. There’s the ennui of being romantically miserable at a picturesque wedding, then there’s the recursive nature of being in a relationship and settling into a routine, which Nyles and Sarah start to do as the days repeat.
Then, of course, there’s life itself, and the age-old question of what we’re all supposed to do with it. To Nyles, it’s become simply something to endure; to Sarah, there’s still the chance that she might be able to break out of certain harmful cycles. The film is only 90 minutes long but somehow manages to wrestle all those ideas into an airy, silly comedy filled with terrific laugh lines and fizzy chemistry between Samberg and Milioti. It’s tough for a film to be heady and hilarious, but Palm Springs does it beautifully.
When I first saw the movie at Sundance, I had expected little more than a zany wedding comedy and was fascinated by its complexity. On rewatch, months into a pandemic, Palm Springs is even more trenchant. For many, existence has felt limited and monotonous of late, with no obvious light ahead; there’s a strange satisfaction to seeing a highly entertaining film that speaks to that specific anxiety without even meaning to. In Palm Springs, the journey the central characters go on isn’t just about trying to escape the loop—it’s about understanding that no matter how tedious life might seem, there are always ways to find joy in living it.
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