As the months pile on, the global pandemic we collectively face has — among other losses — obscured our sense of time. We wake up, check the news, eat. Some of us work from home; others never stopped going in; many are unemployed. Regardless of one’s position, most days have bled together.
It’s the eternal recurrence of life. Like Sisyphus, the boulder we have been pushing up the mountain has become heavier.
Max Barbakow’s debut film Palm Springs unwittingly speaks to this humdrum existence. Nyles, played by a goofy Andy Samberg, puts it best: “Today, tomorrow, yesterday — it’s all the same.”
A Sundance hit that was recently released on Hulu, Palm Springs is a sci-fi variation of 1993’s Groundhog Day — just substitute Samberg for Bill Murray. Nyles finds himself in perhaps one of the most dread-inducing time loops: a wedding he’s only at because his girlfriend, Misty (played by Meredith Hagner) is a bridesmaid.
From the tale’s start, Nyles is already stuck in this infinite cycle, having fully embraced the brand of nihilistic thought that “nothing matters.” He is, for example, very unfazed by the knowledge that Misty is cheating on him. And he has been living most of his days to the beat of being consequence-free. Why not have sex with whomever and eat, drink and consume whatever if you’re doomed to wake up to the same morning for all eternity?
He lounges on a pizza-shaped float, drifting through dazzling blue pool water while drinking beer, eating a burrito and donning a loose Hawaiian shirt. There’s a deceptive warmth to this image: The film’s sun-drenched desert backdrop may be colorful, but this endless summer does not yield happiness.
Palm Springs doesn’t truly take off until Sarah, the older sister of the bride, enters. Portrayed by Cristin Milioti, she becomes stuck with Nyles after following him in to a cave — the source of the time entrapment.
They have an undeniable, charming chemistry that will make you feel fuzzy. (They had me smiling like a goof). But the duo stand on their own, too, both fleshed out with unique story arcs. On the surface, Palm Springs isn’t a revolution, yet it manages to bring a freshness to the time-loop subgenre through character development.
Sarah could have been sidelined as a manic pixie dream girl trope or, as Groundhog Day does, a projection for Nyles to fix himself upon. In Palm Springs, both characters have their own shit to navigate in order to self-actualize; it is through their connection that life begins to move forward, even if the next day is technically the same.
They work through these motions together, throwing themselves to the wind, floating by the pool, chugging beers, playing out shenanigans, doing drugs and, yes, killing themselves to reset the day.
Whereas Nyles clings to the philosophy that nothing matters to shield himself from feeling, Sarah resists this concept, adhering to the more existential idea that there must be meaning and consequence. To grow, she must forgive herself and learn to let others in; Nyles must move past numbing his pain and into manifesting meaning for himself. Both of them are realistic, relatable characters worth rooting for despite their flaws.
“I can’t keep waking up in here,” Sarah says to Nyles, the reality of the never-ending unbearable. But he, on the other hand, struggles to come to grips with the idea of existence outside the void.
Speckled with dark humor, the sci-fi romcom doesn’t feel mired by its existential angst, mostly due to the leads’ endearing, funny performances; Milioti and Samberg are a true joy to watch. The supporting cast, at times, feels underdeveloped. But in a world of sameness, that’s also a bit of the point. J.K. Simmons’ Roy is the only other “stuck” character, adding a welcome spice of absurdism to the mix. The logic of the time-loop is fuzzy, but this doesn’t detract from the plot’s real focus.
The film’s sentiment feels ever-so relevant in a pandemic where connection to others often feels fragmented, or altogether lost. Palm Springs reminds us that, even if we are drifting through a dark place, the search for a way out the cave — for a new tomorrow — is worth the cost of overcoming apathy. Rating: A-