Palm Springs ★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

The ills of immortality have been a subject of literature since at least the ancient Greeks, where the gods, unable to ever die, become wrapped up in the smallest of petty trifles, exacting revenge upon mortals for even the smallest insults. Without something definitive to live for, or without a definitive end, it is too easy to lose sight of the big picture, so the mythology teaches us.

But while the lure of immortality and the dangers within have been present in human literature since it’s beginnings, 1993’s Groundhog Day with its creative time-loop, repeating the same day ad aeternum really and truly reinvented how art can talk about immortality. So much so that films like Happy Death Day and Edge of Tomorrow cannot be described in any way other than “it’s like Groundhog Day but a horror movie” or “Groundhog Day, but an action movie.” And Palm Springs? It’s like alternate reality sequel to Groundhog Day where Phil never gets out of the time loop and the film’s love interest gets sucked in as well.

I say sequel, and I really do mean it. Even if that film is never explicitly mentioned here, its argument about how someone’s psychology and attitudes would change as days remained the same for months or years on end casts a large shadow. In that movie, Bill Murray’s character starts with denial, then playful hi-jinks, then desperate attempts of suicide, and finally nihilistic acceptance. We join Palm Spring’s protagonist, Nyles (Andy Samberg) at that nihilistic acceptance phase. He’s not at the beginning of his time loop, but thousands of days in; dialogue reveals that he went through all those other changes in psychology already. Like Murray in Groundhog Day, Nyles is forced to relive a day where he’s largely alone. He’s at a wedding in Palm Springs for his girlfriend’s best friend, surrounded by a group of people to whom, besides his self-centered girlfriend for whom he has no feelings, he has no attachments. For all intents and purposes, Samberg’s character is virtually the same as Murray’s from Groundhog Day, just adapted for 2020: a quick-witted, cynical yet likeable, and overall laid back guy despite the stress of his situation.

What’s different this time around is that the film’s love interest, here played by the wonderful Cristin Milioti, gets drawn into the time loop as well. This has its pluses and minuses. On the one hand, it avoids this being a 100% re-tread of Groundhod Day, even if now we see Milioti’s Rachel go through those above changes in psychology and attitude outlined above (albeit much more quickly than in Groundhog Day). But on the other hand, it turns the film into more of a standard romantic comedy with time-loop elements tacked on. If you tracked out the plot points, it’s really not much different than a run-of-the-mill rom-com. There’s the meet-cute, initial conflicts and playful antagonism, the falling in love, the making love, the first big fight, falling out of love, and then revelations at the end they are meant for each other. I didn’t put a spoiler on this review… but if you didn’t know that was the basic outline for a rom-com I apologize.

There’s a few touches here that really do add to the ever-slowly growing genre of time-loop films. Though I won’t spoil why, Milioti’s Rachel wakes up in an unpleasant location every day, and no matter what she does during the day, she is forced to deal with the consequences of the prior day’s terrible decision morning after morning after morning. It’s a neat idea that defies the genre expectation of bMurray waking up to the same Sonny & Cher song in his cozy Punxsutawney hotel. But more generally, it adds the idea of adding others to the time loop, and how people in the time loop might respond to one another. The film offers two examples, both believable.

Nyles initially got stuck in the loop by wandering into a cave near the wedding, and at some point prior to when this film’s plot begins, Nyles had brought a gruff wedding guest, Roy (J. K. Simmons) to the cave as well. Roy is not pleased by this. He spends his days of eternity plotting up ways to torture Nyles for revenge. It’s an amusing sub-plot and one that gives Simmons a great role and leads to wonderful physical comedy. But it also leads to a lesson: death and life are meaningless, but pain is real. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the film begins with detailing how Milioti’s Rachel accidentally ends up following Nyles into the cave, and the two bond and fall in love within the setting of their shared, yet unique experience within the universe. But it does raise interesting questions about love that extend beyond lovers within a time-loop to just any pair of lovers who meet and fall in love within certain circumstances. Will our love last beyond this unique setting we are in? It’s the same question raised by Grease, and any two teens who meet at a summer camp. Will we make it “on the other side”? Another question that gets raised (though unfortunately not very much addressed) is the fact that prior to Rachel being stuck in the time loop with Nyles, he has seduced and slept with Rachel “thousands of times.” When Rachel’s just another person within Nyles’s time loop there’s no moral issue, but once she enters his world fully, what does one do with the knowledge? It’s really rather creepy and the argument that follows this revelation also reinforces film’s theme: life and death may not matter, but pain is real.

As far as rom-coms go, this is one of the smarter ones. I love Milioti and Samberg, and as a pair they have great chemistry. Their dialogue feels natural, and naturally funny. I wouldn’t be surprised if they improvised some or many lines. And the more structured jokes relying on the time-loop gimmick work well. It’s certainly a lighter movie than Groundhog Day or even the surprisingly humorous Edge of Tomorrow, and it never reaches the former film’s originality or the latter film’s emotional highs, but it’s a fun film that will keep you entertained on a Saturday night. It reminds us that we are not meant to live forever, that living forever makes us lose sight of the big picture, and that even when life seems meaningless, pain whether from a bow and arrow or from heartbreak, is always real.