You know, I hope the cast & crew of Groundhog Day (1993) receives a check each time their work is paid homage. No other film is more closely tied to a specific trope, one that the film popularized – that of the repeating day. From Russian Doll to an episode of Supernatural, we’ve mined tons of mileage out of the ordeal. But now, Palm Springs, a Hulu original, hopes to break new ground with this familiar territory.
The film stars Andy Sandberg as Nyles, a hapless man stuck in a trainwreck of a relationship with Misty (Meredith Hagner). Nyles went to the Adam Sandler school of schlubby romantic leads; he’s charming and fun to be around, but he’s also self-centered and self-serving. While at Palm Springs for the wedding of his girlfriend’s sister, he begins to develop a relationship with the maid of honor, Sarah (Cristin Milioti) – who just so happens to also be the sister of the bride and Misty. But Sarah and Nyles’ potential fling has a major obstacle – they’re stuck in a time loop and they have no idea how to break it.
This could easily be seen as a tired plot device done to death, but Palm Springs aims to upend the typical formula due to crucial details regarding the characters. Since this is the year 2020, there’s of course no A.M. radio to play the same song each morning, and the film follows the lead of Russian Doll by having the time loop affect multiple people instead of torturing one poor soul. But where Palm Springs really pivots is in the backstory of the characters – when we first meet Nyles and Sarah, we’re not witnessing the first instance of the time loop.
As a result, the movie has the luxury of introducing a slew of surprises because the audience isn’t privy to the history, details, and relationships that help inform what the conflict is. This is a clever way to exposit information, since both Nyles and Sarah carry baggage with them that’s slowly revealed over the course of the film. What they soon have to come to realize is they’re both flawed individuals who’ve made shitty choices, but can you come back from that, rectify, and start anew?
However, if there’s one major problem with the film, it’s never consistently funny. Sure, there are some good laughs here, such as when we meet Roy (J.K. Simmons. Sidenote: we should definitely have a petition to have Simmons in every movie, he’s never not made a movie better) who has a drug-fueled night out with Nyles that ends with the former vowing death on the latter. But the movie is a bit too subdued, settling for singles without ever going for a home run. The film has marketed itself as a comedy, but it’s more accurate to say it’s a comedy-drama, and some viewers may not be prepared or accepting of that distinction. It shares a similarity with Groundhog Day in that it mixes humor with an edge of existential dread, but Palm Springs carries a more somber tone than it’s predecessor.
Nyles eventually develops a dependency on the routine of the time loop. Even if he behaves differently each day (including one day where he and Sarah stage a skit at the wedding rehearsal where they rescue everyone from a fake bomb), he knows what to expect and how to manipulate everyone. Sarah, on the other hand, desperately wants to escape the loop. Not just for her sanity, but to escape the sins of her past and possibly atone for them. One character aims to be a better person, the other settles into a controllable sameness. And of course, these themes act as an accidental parallel to life during a pandemic.
But the biggest parallel that the film draws is that the metaphor of the time loop isn’t really a metaphor at all. Real life can feel like the same day repeating over and over again, and we must find out how we can break the cycle to live a more fulfilling life. Roy and Nyles have a conversation later in the film that feels like a light commentary on the idea that time can feel as if it’s moving too slow and too fast all at once. The takeaway from that conversation is that routine is fine, but there’s so much more in life to experience, only if we can break the loop.
This is a fun movie with a lot on its mind that may inspire people to question their own lives. It may be the best performance of Sandberg’s career, who has to extend beyond his usual repertoire for a performance that is much more sympathetic. And Milioti is pitch-perfect as always (I don’t think she’s capable of phoning it in). It’s a silly film in premise, but never wavers from taking the deeper themes seriously. Palm Springs, ironic given what the name evokes, never wanders into absurd Hollywood idealism. Instead, it exposes it’s characters and all their warts, while holding a mirror to the audience. As a result, the film makes you wonder if you’re making every day count, or are you stuck in the loop?