March 29, 2023

Film Review: ‘Palm Springs’ Feels Familiar In a Good Way

What if we had to continuously live the same day over for the rest of our lives? This concept has become quite popular over the last few decades and has been the backbone of some very original films. They are irresistible, providing viewers a sense of escapism as we watch characters deal with the consequences (or lack thereof) their actions. Unlike real life, they can relive moments and pivot, making adjustments that will hopefully lead to success or redemption. Some of the best examples Source Code, Edge of Tomorrow, Run, Lola, Run. Of course, there’s the granddaddy of them all Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day. While not the first to use the time loop trope, it is certainly considered the gold standard. As we venture into what I believe is year 29 of our own personal time loop, Palm Springs throws its hat into the ring.

The film starts mysteriously with an ominous glowing crack racing across the desert floor splitting it in half. Then, cut to an extreme closeup on an eye and the sound of the words “wake up” being whispered. That’s our introduction to Nyles (Andy Samberg), one we will revisit numerous times throughout the film. Although the guy comes across as a bit of a clown, attending a Palm Springs destination wedding sporting an ugly Hawaiian shirt and sneakers while chugging cans of beers, he carries himself with a confident swagger. He jumps in during the reception to save the mildly inebriated Sarah (Cristin Milioti) from having to deliver a maid of honor toast that she is not ready or interested in making. It is hard to tell if this is a spontaneous act of chivalry or just her lucky break, either way, something seems off.

Nyles and Sarah quickly hit it off and leave the wedding to go hook up under the desert sky. But their excursion does not go as planned. After following him into a glowing cave Sarah soon learns that for Nyles, this is the wedding day that literally will not end As he explains it, “This is today. Today is yesterday. And tomorrow is also today.” It is an endless loop – one that Sarah is now unwittingly stuck in it. All they can do now is hope to find a way to release her from the cycle. If it sounds to you like the couples version of Groundhog Day you would not be all that wrong.

Courtesy of Hulu

The challenge when working with familiar film tropes is to instill something fresh into it. Palm Springs does put a spin on the concept, delivering a clever metaphor for married life, but in no way reinvents the wheel here which serves both as a strength and a weakness. It is a blast watching montages of them making the most of their life without consequences, each segment is more absurd than the previous. This is where the film shows its true potential (my favorite being an awkward choreographed dance that will have you immediately rewinding to watch again). As entertaining as it is, the montage feels a bit like a cheat. It strikes up some laughs and emotions without doing all the heavy lifting. A less abbreviated approach would have been welcome, providing more substance while allowing time to better set up some of the dark humor. The potential was there for much more to gnaw on.

Initially, Palm Springs comes across as high concept and fresh, a feeling that unfortunately fades towards the middle as there is it falls comfortably in the grooves of your standard romantic comedy. The focus shifts from their intriguingly peculiar situation and all it encompasses to a seemingly inevitable romance. The film distracts with all the sci-fi timey-wimey elements, but sitting below the surface is a typical paint by numbers rom-com story arch. Although it is tough not to get caught up in the romance it seems like a missed opportunity to do something completely original.

This film is a strange phenomenon, it is rather formulaic, lighter on laughs than anticipated, waltzed around most the sci-fi elements with quick explanations, and still, I enjoyed it. For that, I have to give credit to Samberg and Milioti who build enough chemistry to inject feeling into even the wildest of moments. Samberg proves he has grown as an actor, delivering a more polished and restrained comedic performance than we have seen from him in the past. He gracefully grooves around in-step with each dancers’ every move and into kitchens where he jumps into family conversations he has no business being part of with ease. Then out of nowhere, he exhibits some unexpected, effective dramatic chops.

Courtesy of Hulu

It is Milioti whose vulnerable yet smart portrayal drives the film. She has delivered outstanding work from her work in an all-time best episode of Black Mirror, to her work Tony-nominated stage work in the musical Once (which I was lucky enough to see her in on Broadway). Here she shows more range – a wilder side that takes advantage of both comedic skills, but also the ability to harness true emotional energy needed to convey the regret holds inside. She is a joy to watch and really needs to be cast often. Another notable standout is JK Simmons who sets up some of the bigger laughs and also the film’s most moving scene, none of which I will reveal here.

Director, Max Barbakow, who to this point has only directed shorts, does an admirable job with his first feature. He keeps the movie flowing, captures the setting’s gorgeous pallet of color, and draws the most out of Samberg and Milioti. By doing so we can overlook a couple of glaring holes and paths that could have been explored further. Overall, he delivers us some cinematic comfort food, a spin on the familiar that may be just what people are craving these odd times.

Palm Springs is streaming exclusively on Hulu.


Quick Scan:

While it may partially be a carbon copy of other films there’s enough here to make your stay in “Palm Springs” enjoyable.

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