Palm Springs (2020)
Written by Andy Siara
Directed by Max Barbakow
2020 has been a painful drought when it comes to new films except for a seemingly endless glut of cheaply produced crud. So, when a picture comes along, that did well at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and is garnering a good bit of acclaim, you have my interest. Palm Springs treads familiar territory most notably carved out already by Groundhog Day. Instead of one character, multiple players are caught in a time loop that has them living out the same day repeatedly.
In this scenario, we join Nyles (Andy Samberg) already many cycles into his time loop. He wakes up in his hotel bed on the morning his girlfriend, Misty (Meredith Hagner) will serve as a bridesmaid to her best friend, Tala. Nyles delivers a speech to the bride and groom while drunk and starts making the moves on the bride’s sister Sarah (Cristin Milioti). He reveals a series of things that prove his omniscience, including that Misty is cheating on him. Nyles and Sarah find a secluded spot in the nearby wilderness and start having sex until Nyles is shot with a hunter’s arrow. The hunter and Nyles both run for a glowing cavern in the outcropping nearby, and Sarah follows, trapping herself in the time loop.
Because Groundhog Day so perfectly captured this story structure anytime I come across it in film or television, I ask, “What is adding?” I think having multiple characters experiencing the same time loop does create new wrinkles in the narrative that previous incarnations lack. We can see how they process this experience differently with Sarah going through the film tropes about being a better person and eventually sliding into nihilism. Nyles melts into an apathetic slacker but finds Sarah’s presence in his journey comforting, and it ultimately leads to him actually seeking to change a day he’s seen rollover countless times.
Once the premise is established, and a few gags are deployed, the story grinds to a screeching halt and becomes painfully dull. There’s a lack of consistency about the rules of the time loop, in particular death. Nyles repeatedly shows a blase attitude as he’s died so many times over. However, when Sarah gets them pulled over by the cops and begins showing out, he’s suddenly worried. But why? If he gets arrested, he’ll wake up free the next morning. If the cop kills him, he’ll do the same. It was just convenient for the plot to have Nyles be freaked out in that scene. This sort of sloppy writing is prevalent throughout the film.
Ultimately, this plays like philosophy class for people who don’t like philosophy and not in an intelligent way. Because there’s no consistency in how the characters interact with the loop and how they grow from this, the audience can’t help but become uninvested in what happens. The story plays out incredibly predictably, and you’ll likely figure out how this will all end fifteen minutes into the picture. There’s a second act reveal that adds a twist to Sarah’s demeanor, but I turned to my wife and predicted as soon as Sarah showed up on the screen. This leads to characters feeling less like people and more like mouthpieces for a screenwriter. Palm Springs is a bit of empty fluff that will help pass the time, it’s something new made with a moderate level of skill. It’s nothing I ever plan on revisiting.