For something that involves the absence of actual aging, the time loop concept sure feels old. Across various forms of media, people have dived deep into the mechanics of the loop and how one could overcome it. Quite frankly, we are now at the point where it’s almost impossible to say anything new about the subject. But while the time loop concept is old-fashioned, it remains a reliable hook for high-concept narratives. After all, it is always a delight to see how people adapt to these circumstances. This is what makes films like Groundhog Day and Happy Death Day so interesting, and I am happy to say that Palm Springs follows in their footsteps.
In fact, it echoes those movies so much that it also takes place around a significant event: a couple’s wedding. But in a surprising move, we do not follow the couple in question: Abe (Tyler Hoechlin) and Tala (Camila Mendes). Instead, we see this event from the perspectives of two other people: Nyles (Andy Samberg) and Sarah (Cristin Milioti). As one of the guests, Nyles is a carefree person who has little real attachment to the event itself. As the maid of honor, Sarah is visibly worn out due to going through all the stages of wedding prep. Given their similar attitudes, it is no surprise that they soon meet and form a relationship. Perhaps what is surprising is that this pair would soon bond by experiencing that wedding day in an endless cycle.
At first, it feels like the movie is too faithful to the typical plot beats of a time loop narrative. As usual, it introduces its main characters before they enter the time loop and gradually pushes them into this wild scenario. Not to mention, the first act takes its time to show a person’s shock and confusion as they fail to break out of the loop. But this is where screenwriter Andy Siara makes his first subversion with audience expectations. It might not seem significant on the surface that Palm Springs has more than one protagonist. However, it does not take long before this extra element creates a dynamic that most stories like this do not have.
As it turns out, Nyles and Sarah react to the time loop in drastically different ways. In particular, Nyles quickly embraces the fact he can use the loop to do anything without facing the long-time consequences. Meanwhile, Sarah cannot believe that this loop is anything but an endless nightmare. Because of that, the movie becomes a two-hander in which the imbalance further bonds the two main characters. With most time loop stories, we only see a person adapt to the situation by themselves. But in Palm Springs, it offers a different perspective that shows multiple people guiding each other through it. With this one change in character dynamics, the film breathes new life into boilerplate material.
It certainly helps that Palm Springs‘s comedic tendencies allow the leads to exude an extreme amount of charm. While the casual and goofy character type is nothing new for Samberg, it still remains appealing to this day. With the help of director Max Barbakow, Samberg’s performance as Nyles strikes a terrific balance between unhinged and relatable. Even when Nyles is at his most anarchic, the filmmakers convey a sense of humanity that makes him an engaging figure. Similarly, Milioti excels at conveying her character’s disbelief thanks to her large and expressive eyes. From beginning to end, we get an immediate understanding of Sarah’s feelings, and the frequent reaction shots of her only build upon that.
Speaking of the comedy, it is nice to see Barbakow and Siara use this premise to indulge in some dark humor. Part of the appeal of any time-loop story is seeing how small changes can have drastic and tragic side effects. And to the film’s credit, it explores this territory not long after Nyles and Sarah enter the loop. In an early scene, Sarah’s mere entrance causes one person to accidentally knock out their front teeth. Although the humor is hardly sophisticated, the filmmakers time it well enough that the shock value is enough to elicit big laughs. Furthermore, the movie has a morbid fascination with many of the ways one can die. Quite often, it pushes its protagonists towards brutal deaths knowing that their lives will reset anyway.
Judging from its first half, Palm Springs is a successful high-concept comedy that knows how to have fun more than anything else. That said, there comes a point where it feels like its light-heartedness is keeping it from reaching greater heights. This becomes more apparent once it shifts away from silly antics. Along the way, the protagonists cross paths with an older man named Roy (J.K. Simmons). Early on, he comes off as a mysterious and hostile individual who has a weird fixation on Nyles. But once it reveals more of his story, it is clear that he is the most fascinating character by a huge margin. Although Nyles and Sarah want to live out their wildest dreams, Roy wants to indulge in something more profound: live out the moments that make him happy.
For a brief moment, it feels like the filmmakers want to offer an atypical message. While most time loop stories focus on developing characters so that they can return to their normal life, this one actually goes in the opposite direction. As it enters its second half, the movie actually tries to develop a character so that they can say goodbye to their old lifestyle. From an outside perspective, it sounds insane that anyone would want to live the same day on repeat. But as we learn more about a loop’s long-term effects on a person’s mental state, the more it reveals that life in the loop has benefits of its own. After all, many people have at least one day they wish could last forever.
It’s a shame, then, that the movie quickly drops that thread in favor of exploring the mechanics of the loop. To a certain degree, seeing a romantic comedy of all things attempt to explore the science behind a time loop is amusing. Also, it’s not like Nyles and Sarah become entirely different people in these scenes. Still, this means the final act devotes less time to the two things that made the film appealing: humor and character building. Even though a process-oriented story is fine on paper, it is jarring when placed at the end of a character-oriented one. As a result, we have a movie that unfortunately runs out of steam despite its brisk 90-minute runtime.
I truly wish that the difference between what Palm Springs could be and what Palm Springs is wasn’t so substantial. Because more often than not, this is a solid movie that completely justifies its place in the streaming world. Sure, it does not have the most original premise or the most lavish visuals. However, while it lacks groundbreaking concepts, it makes up for that thanks to its abundant charm. In fact, it manages to satisfy just by giving Samberg and Milioti the center stage. Would I ever label this as one of the great American comedies in recent memory? Probably not. But by the low standards of streaming exclusives, this is certainly in the upper tier of that bunch. – Mark Tan
Palm Springs is now available on Hulu.
The film stars Andy Samberg, Cristin Milioti, J.K. Simmons, Peter Gallagher, Meredith Hagner, Camila Mendes, and Tyler Hoechlin.