Film Review: Palm Springs
Directed by Max Barbakow. US, 2020, 89 minutes.
Available with subscription on Hulu.
It’s easy to forget how earth-shatteringly funny the first run of SNL Digital Shorts were during the ’05-’09 period from “Dick in a Box” to “I’m on a Boat.” From a distance they might even seem like relics of the 4chan era—so to say a new movie is like an extended Digital Short might not count for much, even to hardline fans. It comes as a shock, then, to find that not only is the Lonely Island’s humor alive and well but that it’s been successfully adapted to feature-length once again: The group’s giddy, inspired sense for pushing a particular theme to its most illogical conclusion while still keeping ample room for #random punchlines carries through Palm Springs, the breeziest 90 minutes I’ve spent all year.
Nyles (Andy Samberg) is the boyfriend of a bridesmaid at an Instagram-ready wedding in the famed California resort town, a role he’s played for as long as he can remember: He lives the day over and over again in a self-described “time loop” and has been doing so long enough to have forgotten when it started (not to mention long enough that he’s stopped caring about getting out). Samberg, with his charming, goofball sensibilities, is perfectly suited to a character perpetually stuck in sandbox mode: pool-hopping, trying every drug under the sun, and sleeping with the entire wedding party one by one—possibly (and understandably) including the father of the bride, played by Peter Gallagher.
Palm Springs plays its exposition cards intelligently, neither bogging itself down with boring pseudo-science nor lazily explaining its story away. Rather it lets its leads play around with a conceit that will likely remain fresh so long as humanity is condemned to its endless, forward march.
I won’t call this a Groundhog Day update, nor will I belabor the point that a film about being forced to relive the same thing day in day out mirrors our current quarantine hellscape. I won’t. Besides, neither one of those things has anything to do with Cristin Milioti—she of Once fame, and the immortal “I’m a very sexy baby” guest spot on 30 Rock (2006-13)—who walks away with the entire picture. With fierce eyes and alarmingly expressive dimples (a rarity!), she brings to her character the natural skill, wit, and charm of a first-year NYU dropout (which she is).
Accidentally drawn into this nightmare by a mix of nihilism and curiosity, the character’s not so much at the end of her rope as she is done with rope ownership altogether. A lesser film, and a lesser performance, would’ve placed her into the “romantic interest” role—but Milioti and writer Andy Siara create an indelibly stimulating character straight out of a ’30s screwball instead, a second protagonist rather than just a dance partner.
Other things I won’t do: wax poetic about the search for meaning amidst the character’s existentially challenging life sentences; muse about freedom, free will, and what it means to find peace; or say more about Cristin Milioti’s performance—because on those subjects both the film and its breakout speak for themselves very clearly. Part hangout comedy, part absurdist fantasy, Palm Springs is a sweeter, funnier, and more thoughtful romantic comedy than we deserve. [★★★★½]