If you had to repeat the same day over and again, how would you keep things interesting? Would you do things you've always wanted to try, or would you lament the torture of repetition? The Hulu romantic comedy Palm Springs answers this with a light-hearted and imaginative approach, reinterpreting the groundhog day scenario in the heat-stroked desert oasis of Palm Springs, California. Of course, with Andy Samberg as the lead, there was no doubt this would be an entertaining ride. While not every character arc is complete, at a compact 90 minutes, the film manages to build heart and momentum as its depressed central characters live the same wedding day while stuck in a time loop.
Samberg plays Nyles, and he's attending Tala's (Camila Mendes) and Abe's (Tyler Hoechlin) wedding at a resort in Palm Springs. In the morning, he awakens and has passionless sex with his self-absorbed girlfriend Misty (Meredith Hagner). Nyles walks around the resort with the familiarity of someone who has lived there for years as the wedding family prepares for the evening's celebration. At the reception, he wears a casual Hawaiian shirt amongst the suited party guests and takes the microphone to make an impromptu speech to the bride and groom that surprisingly hits all the right notes. When he dances, he worms his way through the dance floor, anticipating each guest's movements, and arrives at maid-of-(dis)honor and sister of the bride, Sarah (Cristin Milioti). She is intrigued by his nonchalance and unsettling mastery to do what he pleases.
They venture outside the resort, and as they start hooking up, Nyles is shot in the back with an arrow by a mysterious man, who chases him toward a cave opening glowing in amber light. Sarah, scared out of her mind, follows Nyles, and wakes the next morning to repeat the wedding day. She finds Nyles in the pool relaxing with a beer on an inflatable pizza and dives at him with a mighty underwater scream. What's happened? Well, Nyles unintentionally guided Sarah into a time loop that he can't escape, and now she is stuck also repeating the same day. The arrow shooter, Roy (J.K. Simmons), also foolishly followed Nyles in and is clearly not happy about it, killing Nyles whenever he gets the chance because not even death can end the cycle.
How do you make a film about two strangers stuck in a time loop entertaining and convincing? Well, you put two charismatic leads together, Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti, and you let them run wild. Their chemistry is what makes the film work so well. When all seems hopeless, Nyles relishes in finally having a companion. Together they fly airplanes, break into people's pools, and dance in a choreographed routine at a bar in town as the joy that was missing in their lives filters back in. While Samberg is a natural at simply contorting his face to elicit big laughs, Milioti grounds the film in her emotional range and comedic timing.
Director Max Barbakow ensures that minor details planted in the first act are paid off beautifully later in the film. When Nyles and Sarah first meet, he encourages her to leave the wedding with him before her parents begin to sing a duet for the newlyweds. When Sarah becomes more enlightened about her journey later in the film, she finally hears the song, and it holds more meaning for her and the audience, adding an emotional complexity to the film. There are also hints that when Sarah wakes each morning, not all is as it seems in her room. The reveal toward the end adds another dimension to her arc and informs the tender moment when she whispers what seems like a confession into her sister's ear during the wedding ceremony.
The film, written by Andy Siara, does struggle to answer enough questions about the time loop, particularly how Nyles became stuck in the first place. It may have been significant to learn more about Nyles, his misdeeds and transgressions, and why he is dating someone like Misty. He comes across as someone disappointed with his life and unable to move beyond his inhibitions. Yet here he is, living the same day over and over, and hooking up with anyone open to indulge him. It's a missed opportunity that the film doesn't delve deeper into Nyles and his motivations for wanting to stay in the time loop beyond having the freedom to do what he wants.
We're given more access to Sarah, her marriage of two years, and how she has become a shadow of her former self in trying to find a way to move forward. Her time in the loop is spent understanding her guilt at having a failed marriage and how her life had become devoid of any joy. As she starts to get used to the time loop, Sarah begins to look forward to seeing Nyles each day. What's beautiful about this film is that Nyles and Sarah, both in a vicious cycle of depression, find their way out into illuminating epiphanies. Their connection becomes more than playing each day differently. For Sarah, at least, it's understanding she doesn't have to be the person she thinks people want her to be. How she views herself is strengthened by being cursed to live her sister's wedding day over and over and accept her wrongdoings.
Palm Springs, both the film and destination, isn't just searing desert heat, naked pool parties, and retirement homes. It seems someone can find hope there too.
Now available to stream on Hulu