Palm Springs

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Cristin Milioti and Andy Samberg in Palm Springs.
Cristin Milioti and Andy Samberg in Palm Springs.
Photo: Jessica Perez


Palm Springs




5/5 Stars 


Niles (Andy Samberg) has been living the same day over and over. He gets up. Sometimes has sex with his girlfriend that he knows is cheating on him. He usually goes to the wedding that he is in Palm Springs to attend. Sometimes he has to survive the latest attack from Roy (JK Simmons), the only other person caught in the same time loop. Occasionally, he even travels far out of Palm Springs. The days always end the same way, with him waking up in the same bed, at the same place, on the same day. When Sarah (Cristin Milioti), the bride's dysfunctional sister, unintentionally gets caught in the same time loop, nothing will ever be the same for Niles, Sarah or Roy ever again.


The concept no doubt has existed in science fiction stories for years, but when Groundhog Day hit cinemas in 1993, it introduced a whole new storytelling device to mainstream Hollywood that has been used, often in vastly different genres, dozens of times ever since: the time loop. It's a brilliant storytelling device that turns time travel on its head, but the reason it has been such a perennial favourite for decades is that Groundhog Day was such a stone, cold classic.

Most of the best time loop films have gone out of their way not to tread on Groundhog Day's sacred ground. Two notable examples from recent years are Source Code and the ever underrated Edge of Tomorrow. Both are pretty different from one another, and both steer clear of the romantic comedy trappings of the Harold Ramis/ Bill Murray classic.

It says something about the chutzpah of first-time feature-film director Max Barbakow (who also came up with the story with Andy Siara, with the latter writing the screenplay) that his time loop movie is as close to Groundhog Day as it is. It is, once again, an existential story, told as a romantic comedy that features main characters growing as people over the course of this endless day. The big difference this time is that when we meet the Bill Murray substitute, Niles, he has already been in the time loop for aeons, and the experience has made him more nihilistic than ever – and the thing that starts to change him isn't the time loop itself but the woman who follows him into the same mysterious cave that started the whole thing off.

Needless to say, Palm Springs isn't as good as Groundhog Day. But that's only because pretty much nothing is as good as Groundhog Day. It is, however, a truly worthy heir to the throne.

Straight off the bat, what it immediately has going for it is its immensely talented and likeable cast. Andy Samberg has found what is probably his greatest role since playing Jake Peralta on Brooklyn Nine-Nine as he charms both as a romantic leading man and as a guy completely disaffected by and nihilistic about his endless life. JK Simmons is only in a few scenes, but, as is entirely typical for Simmons, he makes a real impression. The rest of the cast is filled up with plenty of recognisable faces from TV and movies (Tyler Hoechlin, Peter Gallagher, Camilla Mendes), but most of their parts are small, sometimes nearly wordless.

The film's greatest weapon, though, is Cristin Milioti, who has already proved herself with a hit lead performance in the Broadway adaptation of John Carney's Once and stealing the show as "The Mother" in the final season of How I Met Your Mother, but this is the first time she has taken centre stage in a relatively big Hollywood film – and, to the surprise of no one who has been paying attention, absolutely kills it. Her chemistry with Samberg is electrifying too.

And that chemistry really is essential. Like Groundhog Day, the romantic aspects of the film are only one layer of a story that tackles heftier existential themes, but it is the emotional hook of the whole thing, and without it, the whole film wouldn't work at all. Indeed, this is one area that Palm Springs is actually, gasp, better than Groundhog Day as Milioti and Samberg are far more convincing a couple than Murray and Andie MacDowell. Despite both characters being obviously damaged people, their easygoing, organic chemistry with one another makes them very, very easy to root for, both as individuals and as a couple.

As for the time loop itself, it's always crucial that any story of this sort doesn't get caught in its own loop as it is oh so very easy for it to become repetitive and monotonous, but Palm Springs deftly avoids any such traps as it keeps things varied enough that though we get a sense of the endless repetition of that one day, we don't get tired of it. Partly, this is a function of the film's very brief running time – though, on the flip side, I would gladly have spent another hour in the company of these characters – but mostly it's because of the way the relationship between Sarah and Niles unfolds in ebbs and flows that even if the day stays the same, the characters and their story progresses at a steady, utterly engaging pace. The way the repetition is used to actually present us with a number of revelations with each loop is especially a masterstroke.

It also helps, of course, that Palm Springs is really, really funny. Samberg is an established comedic force from SNL, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and his work with the Lonely Island crew (the film is produced by the Lonely Island production house, in fact). Yeah, he starred in one of Adam Sandler's worst films, but he has redeemed himself by this point. Simmons may be a more "serious actor", but no one in their right mind would question his dexterity with comedy. Milioti may be less known than her male co-stars but, once again, she more than proves herself to be their equal. Most crucially, the script by Andy Siara is razor-sharp, perfectly balancing pathos and existential angst with numerous laugh-out-loud moments through which the actors can really show their stuff.

Palm Springs is, very simply, a total gem of a movie that will no doubt only improve with repeated viewings – and at 90 minutes long, it practically begs for repeat viewings. It premiered last Friday on DStv Box Office, and though it works perfectly well on the small screen, I once again can't help but wish that it had a solid theatrical release. It certainly deserved one.


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