September 27, 2020

‘Palm Springs’ Review: Déjà Vu All Over Again

Another wedding. The tight smiles of parents and stepparents. The awkward toasts and embarrassing dance-floor moves. The squabbles and hookups. The open bar. You’ve probably been to a hundred like it, if not in real life then at least in romantic comedies. In this one, called “Palm Springs,” we’re not here to pay attention to the bride and groom — their names are Tala and Abe, by the way, a fact you’ll be reminded of from time to time — but to observe two of the guests.

One is the boyfriend of a bridesmaid. His name is Nyles, and he’s played by Andy Samberg, which signifies that he’s a funny guy. Although he is also, as someone observes, a “pretentious sad guy.” That someone is Sarah (Cristin Milioti), another wedding-movie archetype we might recognize. She’s the bride’s difficult sister, maybe not quite as toxic as Anne Hathaway’s character in “Rachel Getting Married,” but on that continuum. Early on, we see Sarah gripping an enormous glass of wine, and later she describes herself as someone who drinks too much and sleeps around.

We suspect from their first encounter that Nyles might be someone she eventually sleeps with, but also that what happens between them will be about more than just sex. Sarah’s feline wit complements his puppy-dog silliness nicely, and it’s clear that the relationship Nyles brought into the movie (with Misty, played by Meredith Hagner) is doomed in any case. You don’t have to be a genre scientist to know where this will end up.

But the long, crazy middle of this wildly funny, admirably inventive movie is where the surprises are lurking. I’m not generally a spoiler-phobe, but I have to say I’m a little dismayed at the trailers and news stories that seem willing to give away the conceit so brazenly. Just to mention the name of the much-loved comedy that this one is sure to remind you of is to risk divulging too much. I’m going to do that in the next paragraph, so consider yourself warned.

Still here? It’s OK: Sarah doesn’t listen either when Nyles warns her not to walk into the mysterious cave with the strange glowing light. That’s where something happens that drops her into the infinite time loop where Nyles has been trapped for a very long time. He has been reliving the same day for who knows how long, and now she’s in the same pickle. No one in “Palm Springs” gives any indication of having seen “Groundhog Day,” but the writer, Andy Siara, and the director, Max Barbakow, obviously have, and they assume you have too.

The way this film plays with that one — updating its themes and taking issue with some of its philosophical insights — is one fun thing about it. Another is how accidentally apt “Palm Springs” feels, given the infinity loop that so many of us have been stuck in since shortly after the movie was snapped up at Sundance for a record price. The fact that every day for Nyles, and then for Sarah, is the same as the one before it is less a goofy premise than an unnerving reflection of the world as it is.

On some days, like the rest of us, they find the will and ingenuity to improvise, to assert their ability to make themselves and their surroundings a little better. On other days they just let themselves get drunk, lazy or mean. They can’t stand talking about their situation but they can’t often talk about anything else. It’s fascinating. It’s tedious. It’s awful. It’s there. Whatever happens, their eyes pop open the next morning — that same morning — to the same reality. They are at once completely free and utterly stuck, and the freedom can’t be separated from the stasis.

This predicament feels quite a bit darker than it did when Bill Murray endured it back in 1993. For one thing, Samberg is a softer-shelled crab, exposing the kind of tender nerves that Murray protected under a carapace of cynicism. His rubbery face registers a surprising amount of hurt. And Palm Springs turns out to be an angrier, more violent place than Punxsutawney. There’s a guy named Ralph (J.K. Simmons) with a mortal grudge against Nyles. Death, which Sarah dabbles in, isn’t permanent — it just resets the day a little sooner — but pain, as Nyles repeatedly says, is real.

And pain is a necessary ingredient in any successful comedy. The trick, which Barbakow and Siara seem to have mastered on their very first try, is to find the misery of the right kind and intensity, to imply tears that match the laughter. The jokes come in rude, fast waves, but the undertow is a heavy, lingering depression, a sense that it wouldn’t really matter if life returned to normal because normal life was its own empty, repetitive nightmare to begin with.

That, at least, is one of the possibilities Sarah and Nyles entertain on their sometimes madcap, sometimes melancholy adventures in the eternal present. One of them is reluctant to leave, while the other longs to escape, but the movie invites you to wonder whether there’s a meaningful difference between resignation and rebellion. The starkest version of that question is whether it’s possible to imagine a future worth wanting. I’d tell you the answer, but that would be a spoiler.

Palm Springs
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes. Watch on Hulu.