REVIEW – ‘Palm Springs’ is the year’s biggest surprise package

Movie trailers are often a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they can give you a tantalising taste of what to expect from a film. On the other, they have the potential to completely ruin any element of surprise pertaining to a film’s plot. Their existence forms a necessary element of every studio’s marketing plans, but, sometimes, your experience with a film would be far greater by going in completely cold on details.

Such is the case with the romantic comedy Palm Springs, which was a film this critic knew literally nothing of before hitting play. And, ultimately, that was the best decision one could make. While the film’s trailer naturally gives away its plot twist (the film itself unveils it within the first ten minutes), it was something so unexpected from a film that looks like any other rom-com by virtue of its quirky poster alone. To say it blew my socks off would be an understatement. If you’d rather remain in the dark and have avoided the trailer, perhaps read the next two paragraphs and return after you’ve seen the film.

After debuting to rave reviews at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2020 when film festivals were still a thing, Palm Springs broke the record for the highest sale from a film at Sundance, with Neon and Hulu paying $17,500,000.69 for the film rights, cheekily besting 2016’s The Birth of a Nation by 69 cents. For such a hefty price tag, it’s rather surprising to see the film completely bypass a theatrical release and head straight to streaming, but that’s 2020 for you.

A refreshingly unique spin on a well-worn genre and narrative, Palm Springs is undoubtedly the year’s biggest surprise package. Endlessly charming, richly entertaining, and laugh-out-loud funny, it’s one of the best romantic comedies in years. Cemented by the impeccable chemistry of its two leads and a smart screenplay that rarely lags, Palm Springs is everything you need to forget we’re equally stuck in a similar situation to those in the film.

At the Palm Springs wedding of Abe (Tyler Hoechlin) and Tala (Camila Mendes), we meet eternal carefree slacker Nyles (Andy Samberg), who is begrudgingly attending the November 9 event on the arm of his irritating girlfriend, Misty (Meredith Hagner). Casually decked in a Hawaiian shirt and yellow boardshorts, Nyles proceeds to get drunk at the ceremony before stepping in to stop Sarah (Cristin Milioti), the reluctant maid of honour and sister of the bride, from giving an embarrassing impromptu toast.

After the pair flirtatiously chat, get wasted, and catch Misty getting busy with the wedding celebrant Trevor (Chris Pang) in a hotel bathroom, they drunkenly stumble off into the desert to hookup. Everything appears to be travelling along well until an unexplained violent event leaves a wounded Nyles crawling into a mysterious glowing cave. Against her better judgment, Sarah follows Nyles into the cavern and inexplicably wakes up back in her hotel bed, where she’s shocked to find it’s November 9 again.

As it turns out, Myles is stuck in a time-loop where he’s forced to repeatedly relive the same day over and over again, with Sarah now inadvertently dragged into the neverending replay as well. While Myles has accepted his bizarre fate, Sarah is less than enthused to be trapped in one of the worst days of her life that magically restarts when she either falls asleep, dies, or the clock strikes midnight.

Following the lead of 1993’s Groundhog Day, the time-loop conceit has ironically been repeated every few years in titles like Edge of Tomorrow, Run Lola Run, Happy Death Day, and Netflix’s Russian Doll, which begs the question if we really need yet another addition to this genre of both film and television. But the majority of these narratives generally follow a singular person trapped in a daily replay, making the concept of Palm Springs entirely fresh simply by virtue of its narrative featuring two mismatched doomed individuals whose unlikely growing connection forms a deliciously endearing love story.

While the story may initially focus on Myles, Andy Siara‘s screenplay wisely (and efficiently) balances Sarah’s arc into the mix, offering the audience the opportunity to equally follow both characters’ journey. After Myles experiences the same day countless times, we naturally find him full of snarky cynicism and exasperated boredom that’s counterbalanced by Sarah’s eventual giddy eagerness to have some fun with the strange situation they’ve both found themselves in. By dropping Sarah into the time-loop long after Myles, Siara creates a terrific juxtaposition that’s incredibly entertaining and offers a goldmine of comedic opportunities, which both Samberg and Milioti readily lap up.

Even at just 90 minutes (if only more films stuck to this length), Palm Springs takes it time for the two characters to slowly draw closer to each other, allowing their romance to grow earnestly and authentically in a film that’s ultimately borderline science-fiction. That’s largely in part due to the dynamic chemistry of the perfectly cast Samberg and Milioti, who both offer the best performances of their careers thus far. Frankly, any director would be wise to cast them together again in another film because you will likely want to watch these two match wits again and again.

Samberg has made a career from playing this kind of strangely endearing nihilistic goofball character, which he consistently handles with aplomb. All his expected silliness and physical comedy is here again, but there’s a surprising maturity, vulnerability, and depth to Nyles that Samberg has rarely offered in his previous work. Despite his lackadaisical attitude to life, you’re cheering for Nyles from the moment you meet him, thanks to Samberg’s endless charisma that’s so infectiously charming.

In her first major leading film role, Milioti steals the show as the endlessly loveable Sarah, who is essentially our guide into the monotony of Myles’ situation. As the character fluctuates between frustration and curiosity, Milioti expertly plays Sarah’s wide range of emotions that are ultimately hiding a shameful secret she’s forced to relive every morning inside the time-loop. In the comedic moments, Milioti absolutely shines, but she’s equally impressive in the film’s darker, more dramatic beats where she invites us into the tortured psyche of a seemingly shallow character.

Surrounding Samberg and Milioti is a terrific ensemble cast, who each make the most of limited screentime. Despite Sarah initially believing she and Myles are trapped in the time-loop alone, we soon learn there’s a third unfortunate soul also reliving November 9 in the form of the mysterious Roy (J.K. Simmons), whose personal vendetta against Myles ultimately morphs into something completely unexpected. Veteran actor June Squibb pops up in a delightful cameo, while Peter Gallagher is wonderful as the beleaguered father of the bride who desperately wants his little girl to have the wedding of her dreams.

While Palm Springs offers numerous hilarious sequences involving Myles and Sarah recklessly performing a variety of absurd situations with zero consequences, at its core, this is a movie with something deeper to say about the notion of life, love, and everything in between. By forcing two cynical layabouts to confront their previous misgivings, the time-loop narrative allows both man-child Myles and eye-rolling cynic Sarah to mature by accepting their mistakes and striving to make everything right. They may begin the film as total strangers, but it’s clear fate has brought them together to guide each other through their individual journeys of personal growth.

Despite its silly concept, which director Max Barbakow fully embraces at every possible turn, Palm Springs is a surprisingly nuanced existential exploration of the meaning of life and how finding someone to share in the monotony makes it all bearable. At a time of quarantined lockdown where we are all essentially stuck in a time-loop of our own with every day looking like the previous one, it’s ironic timing to be given a film like this. But Palm Springs is hitting at just the right time, standing as a pertinent reminder that the repetitive nature of everyday life is always better with someone by your side.

Distributor: Hulu
Cast: Andy Samberg, Cristin Milioti, J.K. Simmons, Meredith Hagner, Camila Mendes, Tyler Hoechlin
Director: Max Barbakow
Producers: Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, Becky Sloviter, Jorma Taccone, Dylan Sellers, Chris Parker
Screenplay: Andy Siara
Cinematography: Quyen “Q” Tran
Production Design: Jason Kisvarday
Costume Design: Colin Wilkes
Music: Matthew Compton

Editing: Matthew Friedman, Andrew Dickler
Running Time: 90 minutes
Release Date: 10th July 2020 (U.S.)