It’s hard to imagine that there’s enough new material in the time-loop premise to assemble a sufficiently original romantic comedy. “Groundhog Day” laid out a rather compelling formula, which later movies have been keen to emulate beat for beat with mixed success: A jaded male lead has a bad day that ends in a botched meet-cute and is forced to try again until he “gets it right.” With such a clear narrative road map, along with its status as commercial debut for director Max Barbakow, it’s tempting to approach “Palm Springs” with a healthy amount of skepticism.
But “Palm Springs” confidently throws this road map to the wind. The result is a refreshingly original spin on a familiar story, reusing and reinventing the beats of its genre to a quite entertaining and surprisingly nuanced effect.
Its first departure from genre convention is in its timeline: Nyles (Andy Samberg) starts the film having already been stuck in an ever-repeating wedding day for an indeterminate number of years. He now spends his infinite time messing with guests, partying and doing copious drugs without consequences, having long given up on any attempts to escape or make sense of his predicament. But when he accidentally pulls the maid of honor, Sarah (Cristin Milioti), into the loop with him, the two become reluctant partners in time.
Sarah attempts all of the stock escape plans — from living selflessly for the entire day to committing suicide in increasingly elaborate ways — but Nyles has already tried them all. “We kind of have no choice but to live?” he explains at one point with apathetic detachment, unbuckling his seatbelt and placing his forehead on the dashboard as Sarah drives the two of them into oncoming traffic. It’s a wildly absurdist subversion of the time-loop premise, enabled by the great comic chemistry between the two leads.
Both have been celebrated in the past for their work in romantic comedy, and both certainly deliver some of the funniest and most heartwarming performances of their careers. But Milioti is particularly excellent. She portrays Sarah with a self-assured intelligence that’s a refreshing change of pace within the time-loop canon — in which too many female leads are utilized more as plot incentives than as fully realized, proactive protagonists.
These subversions enable “Palm Springs” to explore novel thematic territory. In spending time together without any end in sight, Sarah and Nyles each reveal their respective issues with commitment and self-indulgent behavior, traits only worsened by the sheer lack of consequences to their actions. These flaws manifest themselves in their relationship with each other, but are taken to the furthest extremes in their often questionable — and sometimes downright sadistic — external behaviors.
One of the most successful explorations of these ethical concerns comes in the form of Roy, portrayed by J.K. Simmons. Though Nyles previously took Roy into the time loop while on a drug-fueled bender, Roy now occasionally returns to hunt Nyles for vengeful sport. While the stakes of this are intentionally and hilariously downplayed, the film also takes time to create sympathy for Roy, whose future was permanently stolen from him purely in service of Nyles’ desire for a drinking buddy.
It’s in the surreal contrast between the film’s bombastic tone and its subtly pessimistic undertones that “Palm Springs” shines comedically. This is made especially effective by its delightful visual aesthetic, evocative of breezy and summery pastels. Though it often wanders into absurdist territory in its plot and comedy, this aesthetic keeps it consistently anchored in its lighthearted, romantic comedy presentation. At both its most absurd and its most confrontationally existential, “Palm Springs” succeeds in keeping its central romantic arc in sharp focus.
All things considered, “Palm Springs” is a far more ambitious film than its genre labels and premise may initially imply. Indeed, it is because of its deft awareness of the more predictable elements of the time-loop rom-com — its beats and tropes, its aesthetics and themes — that it is able to subvert expectations so effectively. Both as a compelling and innovative stand-alone comedy and as a promising directorial debut, “Palm Springs” is sure to prove to be worth returning to time and time again.