Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Rated R, 90 minutes
Directed by: Max Barbakow
Despite many filmmakers continuing to do so over the years, it still seems like an audacious concept for anyone to recreate GROUNDHOG DAY’s familiar formula. A few have tried, but far fewer ever succeed. For every perfectly fun HAPPY DEATH DAY and EDGE OF TOMORROW, there are mind-numbingly flat failures like Netflix’s Richard Curtis clone LOVE WEDDING REPEAT.
Director Max Barbakow’s PALM SPRINGS, however, does just enough to pivot the established time-loop premise on its axis, turning the inherent comedic absurdity into a deeply poignant story centering on two purposeless people finding the existential wake-up call they desperately need during a wedding weekend. And what it surmises even borders on profound. Funny, charming and insanely re-watchable (fittingly on loop!), this romcom delivers some thoughtful, inventive surprises within the genre and the matrimonial hijinks milieu.
Nyles (Andy Samberg) and his flighty younger girlfriend Misty (Meredith Hagner, who’s the supporting MVP here) are on a weekend vacation in Palm Springs for a wedding. While she’s off tending to traditional bridesmaid tasks, he takes advantage of the relaxing sunshine-drenched vibe, lounging in the pool, drinking lots of beer and carousing with other guests. Sister-of-the-bride Sarah (Cristin Milioti), on the other hand, is reluctant to be there. She’s not enthused over her sister Tala’s (Camila Mendes) union and hasn’t prepared much for her maid-of-honor duties beyond donning a color-themed dress.
At the exact moment Sarah’s about to wing her wedding toast to dear ol’ sis, she’s interrupted by a cavalier Nyles, who gives an entirely sincere speech, albeit dressed as a mockery of the institution in his swim trunks and loud Hawaiian print shirt. Sarah also notices he’s got perfect rhythmic timing on the dance floor as he makes his way over to chat her up. Their instant connection brings them to a secluded desert make-out spot, but just as things are getting heated between the two, Nyles is attacked by the mysterious Roy (J.K. Simmons). Nyles flees, and Sarah follows him into a mystical cave, where the couple are sucked into a powerful, glowing vortex. Sarah soon discovers she is now trapped in a time loop – one Nyles has been trapped in for a while. Shenanigans ensue from there.
Barbakow and screenwriter Andy Siara establish and road-test the rules of the world right away, and the joy for audiences is seeing these characters experiment with those boundaries. As they bond, we’re also engaging with them. This dynamic duo not only discusses what can and can’t happen in this universe – fittingly, over a tempt-the-fates-burrito from a food truck – they also take new asinine jaunts together, ranging from the inoffensive (like an intricately choreographed dance routine in a seedy bar), to the illegal (like stealing an airplane that, whoops, happens to be low on gas). Their freeing discovery that societal rules don’t apply to them also yields hilarity (like their bomb in the wedding cake scenario) and lays the groundwork for deeper emotional stakes.
Blessedly, it avoids PASSENGERS’ absolutely repulsive “selfish man curses woman to share in his unending hellish existence” aspect, as it takes great pains to show Nyles imploring Sarah not follow him into the time loop cave. Later, it’s the woman who uses her smarts to get them out of their current repetitive predicament and the guy who makes the genre’s patented, inevitable and impassioned speech about romance.
Perhaps one of the film’s strongest aspects is the inclusion of Roy, a distant relative of the groom who’s also trapped in the loop and furiously hunting Nyles. For each of the three characters, getting stuck in a moment means something different: For Nyles, he’s succumbed to a meaningless existence. For Sarah, it gives her the motivation to break her perpetual cycle of being entrapped by a problem of her own making. And for Roy, being looped in gifts him with a new appreciation for a quiet life with a wife and young kids. This powerful realization is part and parcel of the narrative’s thematic touchstones.
PALM SPRINGS is an absolute delight from start (Lonely Island’s goof on Sony Pictures Classics’ logo will never not be funny to me) to finish (where you should stay through a clever mid-credits tag). And it arrives at a time when it’s a cathartic relief to feel someone else’s funny frustrations surrounding extenuating circumstances when we too are caught in a similar emotional vortex.
PALM SPRINGS is now streaming on Hulu.