2020, NR, 87 min. Directed by Max Barbakow. Starring Andy Samberg, Cristin Milioti, J. K. Simmons, Camila Mendes, Tyler Hoechlin, Meredith Hagner.
REVIEWED By Selome Hailu, Fri., July 10, 2020
It’s too easy to celebrate a trope-defiant romantic comedy by condescending to the rest of the genre. Newcomers Max Barbakow (director) and Andy Siara (writer) want no part of that. Palm Springs diverges from its filmic ancestors to tell a brand new story, but it upholds deep respect for everything that makes a rom-com great: unabashed joy.
As the plus-one of a girlfriend he doesn’t care about, Nyles (Samberg) gets trapped in a time loop at a Sonoran desert wedding. The day restarts anytime he falls asleep or dies, and the cycle repeats more times than he can remember. His life devolves into a game of sex, drugs, dancing, repeat — until Sarah (Milioti), the sister of the bride, takes an ill-advised stroll that traps her in the time loop along with him.
Samberg’s style has always lived somewhere in between the crude and the endearing, and Palm Springs sees him at his best. Nyles isn’t a particularly great person but, to be fair, he has no reason to be. When the universe finally gives him someone to care about, he does step up to the plate. But while he’s more than happy to scrub his memories and forsake the future in favor of a hedonistic present, Sarah is haunted by her past and desperate for a life outside of the loop.
Milioti masters the art of the deadpan, carrying a full range of optimism and cynicism behind a low voice and tight-lipped expression. It’s the severity of her performance (and its contrast with Samberg’s goofy grin) that ensures the constant repetition of days never halts the film’s momentum. Nyles and Sarah are more alike than they’re ready to admit, but they balance each other out where it matters, taking their chemistry past the physical to the metaphysical — especially with the help of Quyen Tran’s cinematography, which turns even a drug-induced dinosaur sighting into the stuff of peak romance.
Barbakow and Siara are unafraid to take delight in corniness (there is more than one highly stylized dance sequence, and both are near-perfect in their drunken glory). But while Palm Springs does speak to the undying human hunger for love that all great rom-coms must, the existential premise necessitates darker questions. Even if you’ve found someone to endure the forces with, is that enough to make life worth it?
There isn’t a right answer. This is a film that understands why a silver lining isn’t a surefire solution for misery. Sometimes there is no bright side to find, but Nyles and Sarah are tasked with something harder than that. Deciding to be a good person isn’t as simple as either of them – or any of us — want it to be, so Palm Springs narrows its focus. “Pain matters,” Nyles says. “What we do to other people matters.” Of course, life is about love. But it’s also about consequences, and entry points. Together, they look for a way to start starting over.
Palm Springs arrives on Hulu July 10.