Sundance 2020 Review: PALM SPRINGS Delivers Diversionary Pleasures for Our Darkest Timeline

Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti star in writer-director Max Barbakow’s romantic comedy.

Lead Critic; San Francisco, California
Sundance 2020 Review: PALM SPRINGS Delivers Diversionary Pleasures for Our Darkest Timeline

[Spoiler Alert: All ye who enter here, there be spoilers.]

A rom-com with a sci-fi twist may not sound like what we need right now, but it just might be.

Living through the darkest timeline means we need the occasional rom-com to ease the existential anguish or burden of living in said darkest timeline. Even better when that light rom-com comes with a clever sci-fi twist that revisits one of the most beloved English-language comedies of the last century, adding a twist on that twist.

The “first” twist in writer-director Max Barbakow’s Palm Springs? It’s not just a Wedding Crashers-inspired romantic comedy, but a modern-day riff on Groundhog Day, the Bill Murray-starring time-loop comedy wherein he lived the same day over and over again until he became a better, less narcissistic man and embraced his love for humanity (one human played by Andie McDowell in particular). That’s not exactly the lesson Andy Samberg’s (Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping) character in Palm Springs, Nyles, eventually learns, but it’s close enough, at least for now.

The Nyles we meet in Palm Springs lives every day like it’s yesterday (and tomorrow, also today), going through the motions as the disinterested boyfriend to Misty (Meredith Hagner), a peroxide blonde and bridesmaid to the bride-of-the-day, Tala (Camila Mendes, Riverdale). Repeating the same day ad infinitum and ad nauseum has left Nyles convinced he’s been relegated to his own personal hell, minus the fire and brimstone and plus perpetually blue skies and all the alcohol he can imbibe before he passes out.

Almost immediately, Palm Springs diverges from Groundhog Day and subsequent premise-stealers like Edge of Tomorrow (Live.Die.Repeat) in one key, ultimately hilarious aspect: Nyles inadvertently leads Sarah (Cristin Milioti), Tala’s older, screwed-up sister, to the same mysterious cave that caused Nyles to repeat the same day to infinity and beyond.

Once Sarah awakens inside the time loop, all heck breaks out for Nyles. Faced with an understandably angry and upset Sarah, Nyles initially tries to play cynical guide or mentor to her, explaining the ins and outs of living inside a time loop and gently trying to convince her to accept her (and his) new reality. She doesn’t, of course.

Barbakow and his co-writer, Andy Siara, employ the sharp contrast between newbie time looper and old-school time looper to (almost) perpetually comic effect. As Sarah desperately tries to escape the time loop by any means necessary, up to and including multiple, inventive suicide attempts (they fail, of course, to obtain their intended effect), Nyles can’t hide his dissatisfaction or frustration with Sarah’s inability to just accept their circumstances and move on with their lives inside the time loop.

Barbakow and Siara mine the Nyles-Sarah contrast for all its worth and then some, but Palm Springs doesn’t end there. That’s actually where it begins. With the world unchanged around them, they’re literally the center of their own pocket universe or microcosm.

It’s a clever analog or metaphor for how romantic relationships tend to work initially in the real world before the inherent repetition of living and loving together (yesterday is today, tomorrow is also today) begins to put a strain on that relationship, especially if one member of a relationship refuses to grow or stagnate and other one refuses to grow or stagnate with him/her. Ultimately, Palm Springs turns on a virtual “leap of faith,” on whether risking everything (or just something) means anything in a seemingly meaningless world (meaning, like fate, is what we make apparently). 

As Nyles, Samberg leans into his inherent strengths as a performer playing responsibility-shrugging slackers and oddball losers suffering from arrested development. Palm Springs, though, gives Samberg the chance to stretch as an actor, showing a little more nuance and depth here than he has on either the small or big screens in the past.

Milioti may be one of our most underappreciated performers on either sized screen. She can play broad comedy (How I Met Your Mother) and low-key drama (Fargo, S2), always attuned to the needs and demands of the material. Together, Samberg and Milioti have “it,” the kind of irresistible chemistry that convinces moviegoers to root for their romantic success from the moment they share their first scene.

And with first-timer Barbakow’s economical, efficient, propulsive direction (intuitively understanding where to start/end scenes helps) and a ridiculously high joke-to-dialogue ratio added to the mix, Palm Springs emerges as the rarest of rare rom-coms: A rom-com with something meaningful to say that never ceases to engage or entertain.

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Andy SambergCristin MiliotiMax BarbakowPalm SpringsSundancd 2020

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