Synopsis – When carefree Nyles and reluctant maid of honor Sarah have a chance encounter at a Palm Springs wedding, things get complicated as they are unable to escape the venue, themselves, or each other.
My Take – Ever since Groundhog Day (1993) perfected the concept of individuals stuck in a time loop, filmmakers to various effect have been trying to bring their own version of the cocktail to the table. While films like The Butterfly Effect, Edge of Tomorrow, Source Code, Happy Death Day (and its sequel), managed to stand out, rest just simply retreated to oblivion. Thankfully this latest Hulu release comes as an addition to the latter list.
Not a surprise, considering it is backed by Lonely Island trio which consists of comedians Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, and Jorma Taccone, who rose to prominence through their work writing and performing on Saturday Night Live, their classic digital shorts, their flamboyant yet hilarious music videos, and of course, the criminally under-seen 2016 feature film Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping.
Their latest, which boasts of the same sweet, existential, occasionally rude vibe of their earlier ventures, initially gained fame for being jointly acquired by Hulu and Neon from Sundance for a record breaking $17.5 million and 69 cents (with the previous record being $17.5 million), and now that the film is out online following the cancellation of its theatrical release owing to the ongoing pandemic, it seems like every dim was well spent, after all this Max Barbakow directorial is easily one of the best films of the year.
While it does share obvious Groundhog Day vibes and at first glance might seem like just another take on the other ‘time loop at a wedding film that released this year, the terrible Netflix flick Love Wedding Repeat, it does rise up to the challenge, by delivering a slyly subversive, charmingly self-aware tale that toys with audience expectations in subtly surprising ways.
The concept might not be brand new, but the way this story is told feels refreshing, and certainly for the rom-com genre, and remains super entertaining throughout, as it is hard to guess what the leads just might get up to next.
Set on November 9, in an unspecified year, the story follows Nyles (Andy Samberg) and Sarah (Cristin Milioti). While Nyles is a guy stuck in his relationship with Misty (Meredith Hagner) and begrudgingly attending a wedding of her best friend Tala (Camila Mendes) to Abe (Tyler Hoechlin), Sarah, Tala’s sister, is the reluctant maid of honor, who has been the black sheep of her family and mostly deals with the nuptials by just drinking heavily. But over course of the evening, an initial spark of attraction forms between the two, and when Nyles reveals that Misty has been cheating on him with another guest, Trevor (Chris Pang), Sarah agrees to sneak off with him for a hookup.
But as things begin to get hot between the two, Nyles is attacked by a mysterious man named Roy (J.K. Simmons), who shoots him with several arrows. While a badly wounded Nyles flees into a nearby cave, urging the horrified Sarah not to follow him. But she does, and wakes up to find herself back in the same bad as before, on the same date, November 9.
When she confronts Nyles, he confesses that they are stuck in an infinite time loop, a situation which he has been a part of for a long time and has been playing it out in various different ways. With nothing else to do, the two embark on a series of adventures that helps them find themselves over the course of the same day again and again.
Certain things are revealed about each of these characters that add a lot more depth to the story and I found myself incredibly engaged from beginning to end. Despite a small budget, a small number of characters, and a small scope, this film feels much bigger than it is as director Max Barbakow demonstrates his talents well, by allowing writer Andy Siara‘s screenplay to shine under his impeccable direction. With a short runtime and a fast pace, the film is constantly being genuinely fun, engaging, and even mysteriously intriguing.
Its original plot makes the viewer think and remember previous lines that take a whole different meaning a few minutes later. Tonally, it never loses its balance. It keeps its comedy pretty grounded, considering the craziness of its premise. There are no predictably dumb narrative decisions, and its characters escape the cheesy and forced relationships that these films usually insert them in. It never relies on the genre’s formulas, cliches, and cheesy outcomes. The dialogues are hilariously captivating. Almost every single plot point packs an emotional punch, a jaw-dropping revelation that comes in the third act never once crossed my mind.
It really separates itself from the majority of modern rom-coms. Where this film shines the most when it sets itself apart from the outset, because when we first meet Nyles, he has already been “looping” for an indefinite, but clearly long, period of time. This is a man who has learned that nothing has consequences, and doesn’t exploit that fact to be mean, but exploits it to be weird. He can make strange wedding speeches, hook up with whomever he wants, try anything, and none of it matters. So he drifts through the day, again and again, without purpose.
That is until he gets to experience the same looping day from a different perspective as he gets to Sarah work through all the various stages of processing her situation that he did, offering his jaded “been there, done that” commentary along the way. But this isn’t your typical rom-com morality tale about becoming a better person to win the girl. As both Nyles and Sarah were damaged and unhappy before they got caught in the loop, and the second half of the film takes on a more earnest, bittersweet tenor, as their facade of pretending not to care starts to crumble. This is evident when Nyles chastises Sarah for a particularly cruel act against another character, which she excuses because the day will just reboot anyway, but is reminded that the pain is real and what they to do to other people matters.
Yes, the whole part about Sarah studying physics and building a hypothesis is a bit absurd, but you cease to care especially when you look at Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti’s surprisingly humane chemistry. While Samberg doesn’t come off as the typical leading man in a rom-com, he gets to expand upon his well-known goofball antics from the series Brooklyn Nine–Nine to a very successful extend here. The same goes for Milioti, who is famously known as The Mother from How I Met Your Mother, who gets enough space to show off her real talents, making her a fresh and perfect romantic comedy lead.
J.K. Simmons too is great as always, and gets to impart some strange and very specific wisdom. In smaller roles, Camila Mendes, Tyler Hoechlin, Meredith Hagner, Dale Dickey, Chris Pang, Peter Gallagher, June Squibb, Jacqueline Obradors, Tongayi Chirisa and Conner O’Malley also do well. On the whole, ‘Palm Springs’ is an excellently twisty romantic comedy with the right amount of goofiness and heart to make it one of the most entertaining films of the year.
Directed – Max Barbakow
Rated – R
Run Time – 90 minutes