“Palm Springs” is a time loop movie that actually has something to say

Palm Springs Cristin Milioti and Andy Samberg in Palm Springs. (Hulu)

Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti buoy Max Barbakow’s first scripted feature, mixing laughs and light philosophy in the process.

At 90 minutes, Palm Springs meets a variety of qualifiers just by existing. It’s light. It’s tight. It’s detached, but not too detached. Hell, it’s also a riff on the tried and true Groundhog Day formula, so suffice it to say that the final product could have ended up one of two ways. One of those is much worse than the other, but keeping with the spirit of Max Barbakow’s first scripted feature, let’s start on the more cynical side. And with that, let’s start towards the beginning.

Nyles (Andy Samberg) is coasting. His girlfriend (Meredith Hagner) is clearly cheating on him, and now he’s got to go to a chummy wedding in Palm Springs. His disposition is about as sunny as his yellow shorts; the beer in his hand may as well be glued to his palm. At the ceremony, however, he makes the acquaintance of Sarah (Cristin Milioti), a black sheep who’s somehow ended up as the maid of honor. But while she’s just cynical, Nyles has already passed that phase—and come out the other side seeming comparatively chill. Hell, he’s Nyles the nihilist!

They hit it off decently and wander into the desert. One thing leads to another—well, into a flaming cavern—and then they wake up again. Yes, they’re stuck in a time loop. But while she’s new to it, he’s been here for ages, waking up at the start of the day whenever he dies but suffering the pain all the while. At its worst, Palm Springs could end up basic and pretentious, like something made by and for people who spend their free time arguing about the philosophy of Rick and Morty. Thankfully, it’s not. It’s a scrappy little thing, and it lines its humor with malaise and modesty.

And much of that comes from its central idea. As situations permeate and the central relationship grows, Palm Springs shows that things don’t necessarily change. Instead, we just get used to them. If that sounds like it’s not the cheeriest idea, it’s because it isn’t. Andy Siara’s script, which he wrote from a story from himself and Barbakow, wouldn’t be nearly as engaging if it didn’t pay attention to that emptiness at the center. Nyles and Sarah act out of acquiesce most of the time. Siara and Barbakow, however, see the fatalism and equate it with genre tropes.

Yes, these two loners start to feel for each other, and yes, the movie is aware of that. The time loop gimmick and central relationship get closer as the movie goes on. They don’t fully intersect, though. It makes for a film that’s a romantic comedy out of damnation more than anything else, which, while thematically fitting, allows its characters to function as both people and meta devices. The synergy behind and in front of the camera is quite refreshing, even if it’s nothing too profound.

That said, Barbakow and company have their priorities straight enough. It’s an inviting watch; it moves well. It’s Samberg and Milioti, however, who cement Palm Springs’ sense of personality. Their performances are passive but punchy. They also come off as much more active as a unit, which makes the feature feel more involved than it really is. No, the problem isn’t a lack of conflict—that’s clear in its intentions and even well justified. The visual style is what keeps the final product from ever leaping off the screen.

[It’s] a romantic comedy out of damnation more than anything else, which, while thematically fitting, allows its characters to function as both people and meta devices.

Scenes replay from different points of view depending on character shifts, but aside from that, it’s quite the standard take on the material. Quyen Tran’s cinematography, for one, is as sun-dappled as you’d expect. It’s also pretty flat, and the choices are by and large confined to the script. Andrew Dickler and Matt Friedman do punch it up a bit in the editing department, though. The comic timing is there, as are enough moments that actually hold on its characters when it counts.

Such results in a movie that not only is far from its worse impulses, but also aware of the moments that do count. It’s not a revelation. It might even be a little too sanitized for its own good at points. But it’s an auspicious calling card for Barbakow, and for now, that’s what counts. Breaking the record for highest Sundance sale in history? Consider that an added bonus.

Palm Springs hits Hulu this Friday, July 10.

Palm Springs Trailer:

Liked it? Take a second to support The Spool on Patreon!