Getting stuck in a time loop used to be cool – you could revisit moments you missed, undo silly mistakes, and forge something meaningful from the whole experience in general. Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day found Bill Murray’s cynical weatherman trapped in Punxsutawney, PA, covering its eponymous tradition with the weariness of the town’s February frost and trying to chat up his producer; Donnie Darko, the breakthrough for both Richard Kelly and Jake Gyllenhaal, conjured an outlandish series of paradoxes involving adolescent frustration, alternate universes, and apocalyptic premonitions; Doug Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow pitted Tom Cruise against aliens, with the former having the advantage of respawning prior to the invasion itself.
But time loops can only be spun so far. Most of them involve a lone protagonist capitalising on his or her unique predicament to influence the outcome of events, whether to secure a surefire date or for preventing one’s own recurring murder. With films like Happy Death Day (and its sequel, Happy Death Day 2U) or series such as Netflix’s Russian Doll thoroughly embedded in our mainstream cultural consciousness, no longer as startling and provocative as Groundhog Day or even Chris Marker’s La Jetée had been when they were first shown, the genre risks becoming – as has long been the case with its zombie counterpart – a stale backwater of clichés and low-effort parody.
It’s therefore quite the pleasant surprise to note that Palm Springs, the fiction directorial debut of Max Barbakow, steers clear of this seemingly inevitable fate. Where lesser works might either clumsily offer meticulous breakdowns of each and every temporal indiscretion, or forgo any and all semblance of logic indiscriminately, Barbakow hits the tonal sweet spot: combining goofy nerdism and heartwarming introspection in a compelling, chemistry-driven narrative. The result is a thoroughly refreshing take on the time loop genre and one of the year’s best comedies.
Andy Samberg, of the Lonely Island comedy trio, stars as Nyles, a sad-boy stoner who finds himself at a wedding in which he’s more or less a total stranger: the lucky couple is his girlfriend’s friend and her fiancée. He wakes up to the sight of his girlfriend, obviously bored with him but too accustomed to the normalcy of their arrangement to call it quits. They have laughably dispassionate sex before she’s misplaced something in her luggage and they must rush to the wedding proper.
The rest of the day passes smoothly, almost too smoothly – as if Nyles can know every action that is to happen, every reaction to optimise the time spent. He basks in the estate’s pool, calmly soaking in the November air. When Sarah, the bride’s older sister, and maid-of-honor, is too drunk to toast the newlyweds, he casually strolls into the frame and relieves her of the task, producing an encomium on eternal love and devotion of which he believes “not a word of”, as he later tells her. They spend the evening together, watching a stranger go down on Nyles’ girlfriend and eventually making out themselves. Before anything noteworthy transpires between them, Nyles is viciously attacked by an unknown assailant, and this leads both him and Sarah to a mysterious cave pulsating with light.
And so begins the first of many temporal resets in Palm Springs, where both Nyles and Sarah wake up in their respective rooms, under the warm Californian sun. Nyles takes it in stride, oblivious to anything out of the ordinary. Sarah, played by a wide-eyed and expressive Cristin Milioti, is less welcoming of her newfound situation. Confronting him at the poolside, she listens to his preposterous explanations concerning “one of those infinite time loop situations you might’ve heard about”. Try as she might to escape, Sarah rises from bed on November 9th each time, with no one else except Nyles to bear witness to the events of the previous day.
Already, Palm Springs subverts genre expectations in two ways. Barbakow dispenses with the physics and metaphysics of the glowing cave, never once explaining how Nyles had the misfortune of chancing upon it. The film opens in medias res, wherein he has allegedly survived thousands of wedding iterations, familiar enough to choreograph the guests down to their last gesture. Nor does he undergo this Sisyphean ordeal alone. Sarah, an unwitting new Prometheus, faces a potential lifetime of immortality enduring not only the monotony of a day she never looked forward to in the first place but also the unshakeable company of another.
Two’s A Lonely Pair
The unlikely duo consign themselves to an eternity of fun and games, bonding over their predicament and personality. Nyles, as his name might suggest, has a nihilistic streak in him, forgoing all attempts at grandiose ambition in his fixation with the present. Sarah, the ne’er-do-well black sheep of her family, admits to having drug and drinking issues. When two cynical people meet and get stuck at a nuptial neither has the slightest interest in, you bet they’ll become the best of friends.
Where most time-loop scenarios address the fate of the lone individual in pursuing a particular set of goals, usually in the hope of short-circuiting the recurrent absurdity of their lives, Palm Springs decidedly sidesteps this individualist mantra of self-actualisation and spices up the equation. With not one but two souls stuck to each other for good, greater questions arise: can one get away with doing absolutely anything, knowing that while the day eventually resets someone else does remember them? What are the chances of one or both of them finding a way out? Should they have sex? Fall in love? Will it complicate matters, or will matters get complicated anyway?
Of course, Barbakow does not drily dissect these concerns, and the film’s magnetism primarily rests with Samberg’s and Milioti’s incredible chemistry. There can hardly be a more perfect couple than a wild and carefree one: per the golden rule of all time-loop movies, the duo land themselves a montage of thrill-seeking adventures and violent demises, literally living and dying together every single day. For someone like Nyles, who can’t even remember what job he had prior to his current life, the latter is simply a utilitarian effort to maximise pleasure and minimise pain. “Your best bet is just to learn how to suffer existence”, the beer-chugging hedonist advises his novice sidekick. “Stop trying to make sense of it altogether.”
Aside from witty verbal sparring and a refreshing acceptance of modern living’s inherent absurdities, Palm Springs has even more surprises in store for the viewer. As with the idealistic concept of marriage, hoping for a relationship devoid of conflict and chaos is akin to successfully willing the time loop out of existence. One is bound to get sick of eternity, not to mention spending this eternity with another. Alongside Nyles and Sarah are Roy (J.K. Simmons), a gruff wedding guest and family man, and the suburban picturesqueness of taciturn Tala (Camila Mendes) and smarmy Abe (Tyler Hoechlin), the actual married couple. They play bigger roles than Barbakow would have you think.
Calling Out Your Name
At its heart, Palm Springs is about commitment and finding purpose, which makes it not so different from its time-bending predecessors after all. Contrary to expectations of the film espousing a radically nonchalant worldview that gladly encompasses perpetual debauchery and irresponsibility, it remains a remarkably conservative and cheerful antidote in a world of postmodern parody and existential paranoia. That it ends on a relatively conservative note should not be taken in any way as a sign of thematic weakness.
Early on, before Sarah has her fate sealed by the cave, she banters and flirts with Nyles, for whom she remains just another casual encounter to pass the time. In the midst of the wedding’s impersonal celebration and jubilation, they share a personal moment, gleefully skeptical of the performative ceremonies around them but equally intimate between themselves. “We’re all fucking alone,” whispers Nyles after an old lady congratulates him for his impromptu spiel. Where marriage today is seen as less of a familial duty and more of a voluntary negotiation between two parties, its frustrations and unhappy compromises take their toll much quicker. It’s easy to be lifelong partners in name, but even easier to feel apart and have intimacy come undone.
Palm Springs, however, isn’t staunchly pro-marriage; that Nyles and Sarah embrace the eternal recurrence of life, as well as each other, says more about their healthy cynicism and aversion to oppressive self-destruction than any ideological commitment to tradition. If anything, Barbakow’s film seeks to rally against tradition’s annoying habits, be they the male-centric narratives about wooing and conquering the lady or the derivative bags of stale jokes and predictable moves. Both Samberg and Milioti are riotous in this one, but Milioti arguably steals the show for her snarky humour and endearing charm.
For a film about time loops, this is one you wouldn’t mind watching over and over again. Not only is it a rambunctious rom-com crowd-pleaser, but it also offers surprising insight into the existential quandaries of modern life. As Murray bitterly dictates to the audience in Groundhog Day, “it’s going to be cold, it’s going to be dark, and it’s going to last you for the rest of your lives!” Thank God we have Palm Springs to tide us through this cold and dark timeline.
What do you think? Does Palm Springs hold up in the pantheon of great time loop movies?
Palm Springs will be available to stream on Hulu on July 10, 2020.
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