Time loops are a well-worn movie trope, but it is difficult to tread new ground on them without it feeling like, to put it bluntly, the audience is reliving the same story over and over again. In recent years, the strategy has been to apply the trope to genre films such as horror (“Happy Death Day”) and science fiction (“Edge of Tomorrow”) because to attempt another romantic comedy about a time loop would be to tread on Groundhog Day’s toes. But “Palm Springs” manages to make a time-loop romantic comedy divorced from “Groundhog Day” that captures Millennial nihilism the way “Groundhog Day” captured Boomer nihilism.
“Palm Springs” follows Nyles (Andy Samberg), at first glance a goofy slacker in league with Samberg’s other roles such as Hot Rod and his Saturday Night Live persona. Nyles is attending a wedding with his girlfriend Misty (Meredith Hagner) and his choices seem at first shocking but on-brand for an Andy Samberg character: he attends the wedding in swim trunks and an open button-down shirt, but delivers a heartfelt speech during the wedding reception. The speech surprises and moves the maid of honor, Sarah (Cristin Milioti), who hangs out with Nyles for the rest of the wedding. When Nyles is shot by a mysterious hunter (J.K. Simmons), Sarah freaks out and follows Nyles to a weird glowing cave. She enters the cave and then wakes up to discover that it’s the morning of the wedding again. We then follow Sarah, who is determined to exit the time loop while Nyles is resigned to his repeating fate.
It is a bizarre experience watching any time-loop movie while in Covid-19 quarantine, now that most of the general population actually knows what it’s like to live the same day over and over again. The movie, having been filmed and completed before the Covid-19 pandemic struck, had no way of knowing it would capture a pandemic zeitgeist, but all the same, it wisely chooses to focus on interpersonal relationships rather than a video game-like insistence on “solving” the problem of the time loop. The movie doesn’t hold the audience’s hand or even really explain the time loop beyond the basics—kind of ironically, it expects people to have seen time-loop movies before. Scientific musings about the nature of space and time are halfheartedly shoehorned in, in favor of more philosophical musings about fate, destiny and time.
There is some exploration of ways time loops are usually “solved” in movies, such as doing good deeds, mending personal relationships, and quantum physics, but those take a backseat to character-driven problems. The pandemic is increasingly becoming a problem that needs to be waited out rather than solved, and the movie models self-introspection when faced with a lot of time to kill. “Groundhog Day” has Bill Murray’s Phil want to be a better person to get with Andie McDowell’s Rita. “Palm Springs” has Nyles and Sarah want to be better people because they’re tired of hurting the people they love. It is intentional that the framing device of the movie is a wedding because to wake up next to the same person every morning for the rest of one’s life is a nightmare to some people but a dream to others, if they’ve found the right person.
For this reason, Samberg and Milioti turn in entertaining but nuanced performances. The audience gets the sense that Samberg is plotting an Adam Sandler-like pivot from silly arrested-development roles to more mature “Uncut Gems”-like performances. Samberg’s Nyles is fun but shows a vulnerability that places his performance among romantic comedy greats such as Billy Crystal’s Harry in “When Harry Met Sally.” Milioti, most famous for being the doe-eyed mother in How I Met Your Mother, plays Sarah as a deeply flawed heroine more in line with Charlize Theron in Young Adult or Kristen Wiig in “Bridesmaids” than other rom-com heroines. It is refreshing to see a female lead in a romantic comedy with more flaws than the usual “she’s clumsy.” J.K. Simmons starts out as his usual angry J. Jonah Jameson role or his Oscar-winning role of Fletcher in “Whiplash,” but simmers down satisfactorily, and presents a perspective not often explored in time-loop movies: that of a loving husband and father.
This is not to say the movie isn’t funny. Time loops are popular movie tropes because they take away the consequences of the characters’ actions, which make them prime for drama and comedy alike. “Palm Springs” earns its R-rating with hilarious sex and violence gags. Nyles remarks that dying is still painful and, like Phill realizes in “Groundhog Day,” that suicide is futile, but the humor and satisfaction of telling off mean and deceitful characters knowing there are no ramifications never gets old.
“Palm Springs” is familiar enough to be comforting and new enough to be exciting. Like a new day in a time loop, you’ve seen it dozens of times before, but it is still full of possibilities.