PALM SPRINGS made quite a splash when it debuted at Sundance this past January. The film was snatched up by Neon and Hulu for a cool deal reaching beyond 22 million. The transaction was worth every penny. Not only is the movie tremendously clever, but its story about a time loop is eminently relatable to a citizenry stuck in its own monotonous quarantine routine. Perhaps even more ironic is the fact that PALM SPRINGS is so incredibly watchable over and over and over again. (I’ve watched it three times in under two weeks.) You’ll see more with each viewing and likely laugh even more.
The sharp script by Andy Siara, a sure Oscar contender for Best Original Screenplay, starts on November 9 when main character Nyles (Andy Samberg) wakes up next to his girlfriend Misty (Meredith Hagner) in a Palm Springs villa. They’ve gathered there for the wedding of her BFF Tala (Camila Mendes) and fiancé Abe (Tyler Hoechlin). Nyles, however, is less than enthused about any of it. In fact, he’s positively bored, distracted, and even brazenly cynical about the whole shebang.
After bonding with an equally inebriated and sarcastic Sarah (Cristin Milioti) at the evening’s reception, Nyles takes the bride’s sister out into the desert to tryst. They’ve barely begun to disrobe when a surly guy named Roy (JK Simmons) shows up and shoots Nyles twice with a cross-bow. To escape, the wounded Nyles crawls towards a mysterious cave emanating a glowing light and warns Sarah not to follow him. Her curiosity gets the better of her though and both young people are sucked into the cave’s vortex.
That vortex turns out to be some sort of time warp and all who enter are then doomed to live the same day they entered over and over and over again. No matter how they change the events during those 24 hours, the outcome will remain the same. If you’ve ever seen GROUNDHOG DAY or EDGE OF TOMORROW, you’ll realize that these portals are quite unforgiving and unsolvable. The fun for the viewer is in watching those stuck in it try to change their lots. Nyles keeps trying to mix up the elements, but after months or even years in the maze, he’s become a hardened cynic.
One of the great things about PALM SPRINGS is that the plot concerns not one, but three people trying to escape their repetitive fates. Roy followed Nyles into the vortex months ago and is angry about it. Hence, he’s trying to take out his rage on Nyles by finding various ways to kill him each day. Three times such victims are just one of the film’s brilliant conceits. Here are five others that make this comedy so exceedingly clever. (And yes, beware of spoilers in the coming analysis.)
THE FILM WASTES NO TIME
One of the most surprising things about the film is how the film starts with Nyles and Roy already in the time loop. Yes, Sarah becomes a newcomer to it all, and in turn, serves as the audience surrogate, but the film doesn’t take an entire act to get going. Its wheels are already in accelerated motion from the moment the story starts. Siara’s script and Max Barbakow’s deft direction not only ensure the film has plenty of laughs, but a kinetic energy throughout as well.
THE FILM IS RIDICULOUSLY TIMELY
Tired of staying indoors during the lockdown, working from home, wearing masks, and rocking the sweat pants for every occasion? (You’re wearing them on your Zoom calls, aren’t you?) If so, join the club, fellow pandemic sufferers! Of course, the makers of PALM SPRINGS had no way of knowing how relatable and timely their film would be in July, but their premiere on the 10th is a timing that would be the envy of Job.
THE YEAR’S BEST COMEDY IS ALSO ITS BEST ROMANTIC COMEDY
It’s funny how few comedies stand out in any given film year, let alone one as adroit as this gem. Television took over the realm of comedy decades ago and it’s rare that even the best comedy film in any year can rival television’s superior comedy series. Yet, this comedy not only has an ingenious premise, crackling dialogue, strong characters, and sly production design, it has dozens upon dozens of genuine LOL moments. And they’re smart laughs too. Sure, some are easy, dirty jokes, but many are complex, dirty jokes too. And as if all those guffaws aren’t enough, the film also sneaks up on you with its romantic B story. Nyles and Sarah become friends, co-dependent, co-conspirators, and yes, lovers. You root for them to not only escape the day but cheer for them to stay a couple well beyond it.
IT’S BOTH OUTRAGEOUS AND GROUNDED
How many films would know how to mine the sublime talents of JK Simmons by having Roy both curse out Nyles and deliver soulful life advice to him as well? In PALM SPRINGS, Roy utters the absurd phrase, “You gotta find your Irvine” and that quote may very well likely leave a tear in your eye. This film wants you to laugh a lot, but like any fiction about the future, it wants you to think about the present too. How are you managing today to ensure a better tomorrow? Of course, Nyles, Sarah, and Roy all learn to accept both the good days and bad in their predicament. At the very least, being stuck in Palm Springs beats being stuck in say, Gnome, Alaska, right?
IT WAS RELEASED ON VOD AND FOUND A CAPTIVE AUDIENCE
Hulu and Netflix, by the nature of their platforms, have benefitted hugely from captive audiences self-isolating at home through the current virus crisis. Thus, PALM SPRINGS, along with films like DA 5 BLOODS and THE OLD GUARD, various VOD horror releases, as well as water-cooler miniseries like NORMAL PEOPLE and THE ALIENIST are smartly taking advantage all of us at home. So why aren’t more Hollywood studios releasing their films on VOD now? Christopher Nolan’s big summer tentpole TENET got pushed off the calendar altogether this past week so you’d think that Tinsel Town moguls would realize that the 2020 movie season is not going to be happening in theaters. Yet, there are plenty of empty spots on the VOD calendar, spots that PALM SPRINGS will all too gladly take advantage of and increase their viewership.
PALM SPRINGS is full of twists that you won’t see coming, is edited tightly with no fat, and has a dozen performances that are all sublime. Hopefully, SAG will remember this stellar ensemble when it’s time for their awards show – – whenever that may happen in 2021.) Indeed, Samberg does his best screen work in PALM SPRINGS, managing the serious as well as the funny. Milioti continues to bloom as one of the brightest young actresses working today. She seems to have a knack too for playing ingenues caught in bizarre portals as evidenced by her sharp portrayal in the USS CALLISTER episode of BLACK MIRROR two seasons ago. Hagner’s a hoot, Hoechlin plays a good cad, and it’s so nice to see a veteran performer like Peter Gallagher make the most of his wonderfully juicy moments as the exasperated father of the bride.
Before your friends telling you too much about it, watch PALM SPRINGS. And if you’ve seen it already, watch it again. And then again. Its treasures, large and small, will help you forget the fact that you’ve spent well over four months now trapped in your own time warp.