(Warning, light spoilers for Palm Springs below)
When a movie has an overarching narrative, usually in the form of a long-standing plot device that the audience was already aware of, it can make the first couple dozen of minutes of the film feel a little same-y. For example, it’s why a lot of people have gripes with superhero movies, especially origin stories, we don’t want to sift through 45 minutes of backstory before they put on their costume and the movie actually starts.
These thoughts stuck with me when I began watching Palm Springs; a 2020 romantic comedy that takes on the idea of a ‘time-loop’, whereby the same day, a tacky California wedding, repeats itself over and over again.
At first, it sticks to Groundhog Day territory, with Andy Samberg’s character Nyles moving around the chaotic wedding like an expert ballet dancer, knowing what everyone will do, where they’ll be and how to react to it. He does this in a bid to impress Cristin Milioti’s character; Sarah, the sister of the bride. What then follows is your usual ‘time-loop’ montage of Nyles knowing every intimate detail of each guest, making tacky time-related jokes and most of all, using this to his advantage to woo Sarah.
The movie is reaching peak cheesiness levels as they begin to embrace in the desert underneath a moonlit sky, right up until Nyles gets shot with an arrow out of nowhere. What happens next is a cacophony of crazy as Nyles is chased by a man in hunting gear who he calls Roy, with Sarah screaming, desperately trying to get to grips with the situation around her. After a brief chase, Nyles enters a glowing cave begging Sarah to ’not come in here’. And then the day resets. We, the audience learn that Nyles has been trapped in this time-loop however, Sarah did follow him in, as she becomes doomed in the time-loop along with him.
What keeps Palm Springs so refreshing, is that this entire sequence only takes up the first 15 minutes of the film. From then on, the movie really begins. Sarah gets to grips with the situation and learns to enjoy herself, leaning on Nyles’ lackadaisical attitude to the otherworldly phenomenon they are both trapped in. For anyone who came into this film knowing of the time loop, it’s reassuring to know that the movie doesn’t spend aeons establishing the plot. Instead what follows next, is a hilarious, sometimes morbid story centred around two people falling in love.
As co-stars, Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti have a visible on-screen chemistry, with Nyles being an almost nihilist version of Jake Peralta; Samberg’s character from Brooklyn Nine-Nine. He effortlessly mixes in the joy of being able to do anything without consequences whilst also lamenting his entrapment in this never-ending day. Sarah, on the other hand, is more apprehensive of being trapped, as she tries desperately to escape the time-loop anyway she can, before adopting the same care-free spirit that Nyles employs. Their adventures which range from an 80’s inspired dance in a dive bar to taking mushrooms and seeing imaginary dinosaurs is occasionally mixed in with the arrival of Roy.
Roy; who is played by J. K. Simmons was also a guest at the wedding, and after a night of drug-taking and bro-bonding with Nyles declares that he ‘never wants this night to end.’ Foolishly, Nyles introduces him to the mysterious cave, as Roy becomes part of the time-loop. Because of this though, Roy develops a deep hatred for him, blaming Nyles for trapping him, and every few loops, he attempts to kill Nyles, usually successfully. Quick shots of Roy torturing Nyles leaves a humorous but also dark twist to the plot. It’s at this point that we realise Nyles’ fun-loving, no worries attitude is actually a mask for the severe mental damage that he’s incurred in the however many days he’s been trapped in the loop.
For a movie about the same day, it can obviously incur the risk of feeling a bit repetitive. Palm Springs does a great job at circumventing that, not only through the quick cuts that showcase all the crazy sh*t that Nyles and Sarah get up to but also addressing their mental health as they wake up to the same day, every day. Besides the plot itself and the chemistry between the actors, the movie does incredibly well to constantly shift the viewer’s opinion on this time-loop. On the one hand, we see Nyles and Sarah fly planes, get tattoos, drink and party every single day in the scorching hot California sun. Equally, their diminishing mental state and Nyle’s ever-present fear of Roy gives weight to more dramatic moments. These dark moments eventually drive a wedge between the two characters, as Nyles is desperate to stay in the time-loop where it is safe and easy, whereas Sarah can’t stand being stuck anymore, wanting to move forward.
For a time in which much of the world has had to constantly live out the same day due to stay-at-home measures, it does bear similarities to our new adopted lifestyle. Whilst we aren’t so much stuck in the Palm Springs dessert, drinking beer and floating aimlessly in a pool, we have suffered greatly to our reduced routine. Think inflatable pizza lounger instead of zoom calls and Roy instead of COVID-19 and you have a film that hits awfully close to home.
Palm Springs is available to stream on Hulu (note that Hulu is not available yet in the UK so a VPN would be required)