Palm Springs Review

Palm Springs
Wedding reveller Nyles (Andy Samberg) is stuck in a time loop. In fact, he’s been stuck in it for a very long time. So, when fellow party guest Sarah (Cristin Milioti) gets trapped in it too after they kiss one night, it looks like a romance could be on the cards. But tales of boy-meets-girl-then-meets-girl-again-then-meets-girl-again rarely do run smooth.

by Nick de Semlyen |
Original Title:

Palm Springs

Palm Springs, a desert resort in California, is approximately 2,400 miles west of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. It’s as sun-baked as that town is chilly, and harbours very few clairvoyant rodents named Phil. Likewise, while Palm Springs may on paper look a lot like the 1993 comedy classic Groundhog Day, which featured Punxsutawney, Bill Murray and the aforementioned Phil, it is in fact very much a different proposition. Yes, there’s a time-marooned couple falling in love, a worrisome man with a bald head pursuing the hero, and a recurring 1960s pop song (in this case, The Toys’ ‘A Lover’s Concerto’, rather than Sonny & Cher’s ‘I Got You Babe’). But director Max Barbakow and writer Andy Siara remix the familiar components with wit and flair, resulting in a time-loop comedy that can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with its genre grandaddy, rather than paling in comparison, like, say, last year’s Love Wedding Repeat.

Palm Springs

One way in which it makes a big departure is in whose story it’s telling. At first, the lead character appears to be Andy Samberg’s slacker Nyles, a big-haired slacker who, in his crimson Hawaiian shirt and pair of mustard shorts, actually resembles less the Murray of Groundhog Day than the Murray of ’70s summer-camp comedy Meatballs. We join Nyles at the beginning of a day, as he flounders through some awkward morning sex with his obnoxiously self-involved girlfriend Misty (Meredith Hagner), loafs in a pool on an inflatable pizza slice, and heads off to a wedding, where he seems peculiarly aware of things that are just about to happen, not least on the dancefloor. But it’s not long before the film has brought in another POV, that of the bride’s sister, Sarah (Cristin Milioti). A wan figure at the start of the tale, gulping down glasses of wine and glumly surveying the nuptial shenanigans, Sarah quickly becomes as central as Nyles, dealing with the same chronological conundrum he’s facing. Because, yes, as he puts it, at the core of Palm Springs is “one of those infinite time-loop situations you may have heard of.”

It’s frankly the comedy to beat this year.

With the comedy pedigree behind it, it’s no surprise that this is a hugely funny film. It’s brought to us by The Lonely Island, the crew who made the This Is Spinal Tap formula their own with Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping. And here they, Barbakow and Siara find novel ways to riff on Nyles’ and Sarah’s existential woes. There are consequence-free tattoos, a bravura dance number in a biker bar, an exploding plane, J.K. Simmons as a guy mysteriously bent on killing Nyles, and what will surely be 2021’s funniest handjob-in-a-car scene (although the year is still young). But while raunchier and spikier than Groundhog Day, it never loses its sense of sweetness. And Milioti and Samberg prove a perfect match for each other, game to throw themselves into any scenario, no matter how daft, usually with a red can of Akupara beer in their hand. (Don’t try to find that brand yourself; named after a tortoise in Hindu mythology who is described as “one who is without death”, it was invented especially for the film.)

If Palm Springs was merely as funny as it is, that would be just fine. A nice, breezy, summery time-loop comedy with that guy from Hot Rod in it. But as it happens, it’s more than that. Just as Groundhog Day ventured into more philosophical territory than its poster implied, so this uses its set-up to inject some real emotion into the tale. Sometimes bleak — Nyles has been trapped inside the loop so long he can no longer remember what job he used to do, while Sarah is harbouring a secret that will eventually spill out — and sometimes uplifting, not least in the form of the ever-evolving relationship between the two paradise-trapped wastrels. Unlike Popstar, there’s very little irony here, and the sincerity makes it. Samberg is quieter and more likeable than he’s ever been, while Milioti, previously best known for playing the mum in How I Met Your Mother, demonstrates so many shades that she surely has a big career ahead of her.

With a perfectly pitched soundtrack (Palm Springs is, after all, in the Coachella Valley), a dash of surrealism and several twists up its sleeve, it’s frankly the comedy to beat this year. And would be even if it didn’t feature the line, “Would you kill me one more time? Just to beat the traffic?”

It’s taken a long time getting here from across the Pond, but some things are worth waiting for. A wonderful, witty and weird spin on an old favourite, which seems destined to become a classic itself.
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