Those crazy kids Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti play two singles who meet at a wedding at a posh Palm Springs desert resort where she decides she’ll have what he’s having. It’s not what you think. What happens is she’ll have to join him in living the same day over and over again until they both go bugfuck nuts or fall in love. First-time director Max Barbakow and screenwriter Andy Siara decide it’s going to be both. But before you dismiss Palm Springs as Groundhog Day at a wedding, please realize that you’ll be watching this sneakily provocative romcom in a way the filmmakers never intended. The pandemic has made the idea of recycling the same day repeatedly with the same people (but this time with a mask) all too real.
How do you not relate to Nyles, the Samberg character, in his need to bust out of this time loop and into a wide world of unrestricted possibilities, even though the bar is always open at this Palm Springs party. When Nyles saves Sarah (Milioti, so good), the older sister of the bride (Camila Mendes of Riverdale), from making a drunk toast as maid of honor that she’ll regret, he’s already relived this wedding day to the point of suicidal distraction. You can see the stress lines pushing down Nyles’ goofy smile. Samberg, the comic star of TV’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine since 2013, saddles his best screen role to date and rides it to comic heaven without dodging the harsh realities that can knock even the slacker dude he’s playing on his dumb ass.
Take love. Nyles doesn’t know much about that. He wakes up one morning and every morning with Misty (Meredith Hagner), the hottie, younger sister of the bride who’s invited him to this November 9th wedding. He thinks it’s for sex. He’s wrong. Like everyone else in this movie, Misty has secrets. Nyles ultimately masters indifference to the point that he wears yellow shorts and a loud Hawaiian shirt to the ceremony. “Yesterday, today, tomorrow — they’re all the same,” he deadpans with understandable confidence. It’s her pain and blunt honesty that attracts Nyles to Sarah, who admits she knew her failed two-year marriage wasn’t going to work out. “I’m destined to repeat myself,” she sighs. Sarah doesn’t know the half of it.
On a walk in the desert, Sarah watches Nyles get hunted down by Roy (J.K. Simmons, hilarious and then some), a wedding guest who means business with a bow and arrow.
Nyles runs for safety into a glowing red cave with Sarah right behind him. It’s the cave that imprisons her in the same time loop, leaving Sarah appalled that she may be “stuck with a pretentious sad boy for the rest of eternity.” And off the movie goes into the wild blue of imagination that in its wacky anarchy bears the stamp of Samberg and co-producers Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone, the Lonely Island trio behind the immortal Hot Rod and Popstar.
About the Groundhog Day parallels: There are those who know how to pay high-style homage to that 1993 Bill Murray classic (see Natasha Lyonne’s Russian Doll) and others who just crudely rip it off (that’s you, Happy Death Day). Lucky for Palm Springs, Barbakow and Siara have the mad skills to turn inspiration into a wild ride that flies on its own comic wings. The fun doesn’t stop even when Nyles the nihilist and Sarah the cynic — sometimes it is that simple — find themselves in an existential crisis. Trying to off themselves is a no-go since whether they die or fall asleep they’re always going to wake up looking wedding-ready. So they start breaking rules, destroying the wedding in uproarious ways, giving shit to every guest they hate, and making themselves experts on subjects previously beyond them. Sarah picks quantum physics, which could lead to a path out of this luxury hellhole if they don’t die for real in the attempt. It’s commitment not extinction that scares them. Their aspirations for a life “less mundane” sets a low bar, but can they achieve it?
Milioti — who memorably played Leonardo DiCaprio’s first wife in The Wolf of Wall Street; the mother in How I Met Your Mother; and was a Tony nominee for the Broadway musical Once — can nail a laugh line (“Suck my dick, Officer Bitch”) and then break your heart before you know what hit you. “What if we get sick of each other?” she asks, as the movie takes baby steps toward a neat finish that Nyles and Sarah have called bullshit on from Scene One. No fair spoiling the final outcome, except to say an earthquake, dinosaurs, a goat bearing explosives, and a Fournier hair mist called Orchid Explosion all come into play. Palm Springs — which starts streaming on Hulu on July 10th — suggests that repetition can kill sex drives, marriages, and even the will to live. Yet it still leaves you laughing gratefully at the resilience of love.