Cristin Milioti is a star. There’s not even a point in trying to bury that lede. It’s apparent from the first few moments she shares on screen with Andy Samberg, and that notion is underscored many times after as Palm Springs goes on. Luckily for audiences, what may look like a run-of-the-mill indie comedy from its poster alone is actually a fairly complex story in disguise, one that surfs on the waves of its leads’ charm.
Prior to its July 10th straight-to-streaming release, the most notable news surrounding Palm Springs was the massive acquisition deal the Lonely Island worked out with Hulu and NEON at Sundance—breaking the previous record by a nice 69 cents. Yet, those fortunate enough to catch its festival debut were quick to note the film had more than its fair share of merits. They insisted that if audiences could, they should go into this movie completely blind from marketing material and loglines. The less one knows, the better. So those interested be warned, from this point on are spoilers abound.
Palm Springs starts with Samberg’s Nyles, the ostensible lead of the movie, waking up at the titular Californian resort and hazily coasting through the big wedding day of his girlfriend’s best friend. At the big event, he encounters Miloti’s Sarah, the self-destructive sister of the bride to be, and before long the two wind up entangled in a metaphysical time-looping nightmare together. While we quickly learn that Nyles had been reliving his days long before the movie starts, a split second of selflessness thrusts Sarah into her own temporal trap and elevates the romantic comedy beyond so many others like it.
The time loop movie, forever epitomized by the 1993 Bill Murray vehicle Groundhog Day, has seen a genre-bending resurgence within the past decade. Action-wise, 2014 saw the severely under-appreciated (and oddly multi-titled) Tom Cruise film Live Die Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow. In 2017, Happy Death Day doubled down on the horror of reliving your worst day by throwing a serial killer into the mix, and eventually earning a pretty fun sequel. Then just last year, Russian Doll gave the subgenre one of its freshest spins yet, turning the concept of an episodic day cycle into actual episodes of television. Though despite endless riff upon riff on the time loop story, the emotional beats never really changed. Usually, our self-centered protagonist repeats a fixed 24-hour period, causing hijinks until they’re forced to reckon with their own insular behavior and grow beyond themselves. Palm Springs may not change the basic rhythm of this plot, but allowing Nyles and Sarah to play off each other as they each relive their own days gives this formula a much-needed energy boost.
Introducing Sarah into Nyles’ story could have been a dire miscalculation, easily regulating her to the symbolic equivalent of a quirky happy meal prize that Samberg’s immature man-child longs for. But in a testament to Miloti, Sandberg, writer Andy Siara and debut director Max Barbakow, Sarah and Nyles feel like two complete characters in the midst of figuring out their own personal lives, and it’s their differing views on the situation that adds stakes to their temporal nightmare. Often, chunks of a scene or even whole days are replayed through the other character’s perspectives. We understand their frustrations as they clash and root for them as they work together; their chemistry is undeniable. Just as importantly, both Miloti and Samberg are funny, spouting off honest-to-goodness well-written jokes with impeccable timing, which somehow feels like a rare feat for a modern day studio comedy.
That goes double for the rest of Palm Springs‘ stacked cast. Its cyclical nature and wedding setting allow each of the dozen or so supporting players a moment to shine. Brightest among them J.K. Simmons, who, as the film’s apparent antagonist Roy, is granted an equal amount of unhinged antics and gruff poignancy. As Nyle’s de facto girlfriend Misty, Meredith Hagner steals every scene she‘s in, her purposefully unpleasant stock S.O. never once feels detrimental to the fun and is zany enough to feel subversive to the trope. Then there’s rest of the party, filled out by the likes of Tyler Hoechlin, June Squibb, and everybody’s favorite fake-father Peter Gallagher, whose line delivery of “This. Dentist. Glues. Teeth,” has been replaying in my head on a loop since my first viewing. Aside from Simmons, these characters kind of come and go only as jokes are needed, but they get in and out and never overstay their welcome.
Given its torrid desert setting and party hardy vibe, Palm Springs could have been the quintessential comedy of any given summer. Yet, its release fell in the middle of this summer, as an entire nation comes to terms with nightmares of day-to-day monotony with no end in sight. If you happen to catch one on cable in quarantine, I dare you to not feel some sort of envious affinity for any of the wedding comedies that seemed to rule the mid-2000s, what with their buoyant young cast simply interacting with each other in a festive atmosphere. In lesser hands, this movie could’ve easily suffered a similarly fleeting fate, but as it stands, Palm Springs is an emphatic period on the time loop subgenre, and the romantic comedy in general.
VERDICT: Palm Springs coasts on the easy chemistry between Cristin Milioti and Andy Samberg, while not shying away from the denser themes of its sci-fi premise. Considering we’re all currently stuck in our limiting loops anyway, it couldn’t have come at a better time.
Palm Springs is currently available to stream on Hulu.