Artists can’t control the state of the world in which their art debuts; for film productions, circumstances are even dicier. Does the movie match or combat the prevailing societal mood? Will the economy support its release? Are the themes pertinent to a current issue? If the work isn’t discovered initially, will it stand the test of time for a future audience? The stars aligned to answer these questions for Palm Springs, a romantic comedy that dropped on Hulu in July 2020.
With Americans stuck at home because of a devastating pandemic and a haphazard government response, Palm Springs largely skipped closed theaters and came directly to its audience’s homes. Its lead characters are trapped in an unending time loop, striking an eerie parallel to the new normal for those fortunate enough to work from home. Palm Springs is a sprightly oasis in a media-release desert.
Bridesmaid Misty (Meredith Hagner) wakes up Nyles (Andy Samberg) on the day of her friends’ wedding. Nyles has been reliving the same day on repeat ala Groundhog Day, Run Lola Run, Edge of Tomorrow, Happy Death Day, and countless other genre classics. (This screenplay idea, like its protagonists, can’t seem to die, but I’m not complaining.) Nyles begins his daily routine of unfulfilling sex with Misty, relaxing in the pool, and attending the wedding.
At the wedding, Nyles meets Sarah (Cristin Milioti) and the two hit it off. When Nyles and Sarah see Misty cheating on him with Trevor (Chris Pang), the wedding officiant, they leave the wedding venue to hook up. They’re soon interrupted by Roy (J.K. Simmons), who Nyles accidentally trapped in the time loop. Roy chases Nyles into a mysterious cave, the source of the time loop, and Sarah follows, sealing her fate.
After countless days in the time loop, Nyles is consumed by nihilism. He lives on the path of least resistance. He sips a drink on a pool float by day and attends the wedding in boardshorts by night. He’s as perpetually carefree as a college student eating pizza rolls three meals a day. Clever work by debut director Max Barbakow and his costume department reveals a gradual transformation from a tuxedo to swim trunks. A flashback to his introduction to Roy shows a refined, well-dressed Nyles. His regard for social norms diminished with his resolve.
Nyles halts his self-destructive behavior when Sarah enters the time loop. The monotony of the time loop drives Nyles and Roy near madness. With a partner to suffer alongside, Nyles and Sarah become a carefree, immortal Bonnie and Clyde. In practiced rom-com fashion, screenwriter Andy Siara steadily builds romantic tension. Sarah and Nyles are flawed, misanthropic equals. Milioti and Samberg portray Sarah and Nyles with range and charisma.
Palm Springs deploys the time loop formula as an allegory for marriage. The time loop forces the same intimacy, co-dependency, and confidence as marriage. An ingenious concept, star-making performances from Milioti and Samberg, and sweet, genuinely hilarious moments make for a bright spot in an exceptionally dour year.