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Non-Review Review: Palm Springs

On the surface, Palm Springs is instantly recognisable as a genre-savvy update of the classic Groundhog Day template for the twenty-first century.

The basic plot finds two young adults – Nyles and Sarah – trapped living the same day over and over and over again. There is no escape from this nightmare, which finds the pair constantly reliving the wedding of Sarah’s sister Tala. As befitting the more modern media-literate approach to these sorts of stories, Palm Springs joins Nyles at a point where he has already been trapped in the loop for an extraordinarily long amount of time. He is already as familiar with the rules and limitations of this sort of narrative as any audience member who watched Groundhog Day on loop.

Making a splash.

This level of self-awareness in a story is potentially dangerous, encouraging ironic detachment. It’s very each for stories about these sorts of genre-savvy protagonists to feel more like plot devices than actual characters, particularly when operating within constructs that audiences only recognise from other films. “It’s one of those infinite time loop situations you might have heard of,” Nyles casually explains to Sarah early in the film. Sarah responds, aghast, “That I might have heard of?”

There are certainly moments when Palm Springs feels like it might be just a little too knowing and a little too arch, its own story too consciously framed in terms of familiar narrative devices. Most notably, even though the film is not directly named, one of the big emotional beats in Palm Springs seems to be lifted directly from Jurassic Park. Released the same year as Groundhog Day, it exists within the same nostalgic framework and was just as defining for an entire generation of movie-goers. Moments like that feel just a little bit too heavy-handed.

Some “him” time.

At the same time, Palm Springs really works because it understands its premise and uses it to tell a story that is earnest and sincere. The movie’s ironic and self-aware framework masks a genuine beating heart, with Palm Springs using its high-concept to tell a recognisable (and even archetypal) love story about how an eternity of dull routine can seem “just a little less mundane” with the right person. There’s a powerful yearning there, which anchors the film. Palm Springs is as much romance as comedy, and perhaps the truest romance of the year.

More than that, scriptwriter Andy Siara and director Max Barbakow use the heightened set-up of Palm Springs to tell a story that is both broad and specific. In its own way, Palm Springs belongs to the modern Apatowian school of comedy, using its high concept to position Nyles as the ultimate overgrown man-child trapped in stasis, refusing to grow up. There’s perhaps even a broader piece of commentary woven into the film that ties it more firmly to the present moment, capturing the sense that time has been warped and distorted in recent years. Palm Springs is a triumph.

This is no time to argue about time. We don’t have the time.

Palm Springs has the luxury of assuming the audience’s familiar with its central device. It’s a safe bet. Groundhog Day was a huge cultural touchstone, and is widely regarded as one of the best comedies ever made. The concept is flexible enough that it has been adapted into big action blockbusters like The Edge of Tomorrow. Genre fiction has become so mainstream that Avengers: Endgame can casually introduce a time travel plot into its world of superheroes with minimal disruption and without excessive exposition.

More than that, the idea of the “infinite time loop” is so familiar that audiences instinctively understand the thematic implications. It’s just a heightened form of existential ennui that many viewers might empathise with – a sense of being trapped in a world and life where one does not belong, without any hope that tomorrow will be different. “Today, tomorrow, yesterday,” Nyles muses early in the film. “It’s all the same.” When another guest, Jerry, remarks, “Anything can happen.” Nyles sighs, “Not today.”

A night they’ll relive for the rest of their lives.

The nature of the time loop means that both Nyles and Sarah are constantly reset at the end of the day. That reset is more than just literal, in the sense that Palm Springs underscores that both Nyles and Sarah began the wedding day in a deeply unhappy place. Nyles is stuck in a relationship with Misty, which he knows will not survive the wedding. Sarah did something unforgivable the night before, and has to wake up every morning to face the consequences of that decision.

There’s something slightly barbed in all of this. As the sign outside the venue repeatedly asserts, the film takes place on an unspecified November 9th. The choice of date seems highly unlikely to be a coincidence. After all, it has been suggested that – in 2016 – November 9th was both “the day that the 21st century began” and “the day that changed everything.” As such, a world in which the characters wake up on a perpetual November 9th feels like its own specific form of torment. (Alternatively, November 9th is also the German “day of fate.”)

Pooling resources.

Palm Springs knows better than to evoke that day directly, even if the choice of date feels quite specific and pointed. Indeed, Nyles’ reaction to the time loop in some ways mirrors the response to the Trump election. Running through possible explanations for what happened, he posits that it might be “a glitch in the simulation we’re both in”, which is a common way of talking about that election result by those struggling to come to terms with it.

Again, there is some resonance here. Nyles explains to Sarah that he has stopped keeping track of the passage of time within the loop. “My sense of time is a little fuzzy,” he concedes. Much has been written about how things like the pandemic can distort a person’s perspective of time, but these sorts of discussions were already happening. One of the common refrains coming out of 2018 was that it was “the longest year ever.” It has been common to suggest that this warped perception of time exists in the context of a Trump presidency. Four years can feel an eternity.

Fizz-ling out.

Nyles’ reaction to this is a despairing embrace of nihilism. “The only way to live in this is to embrace the fact that nothing matters,” he observes of the situation, which again resonates with the choice of date. That surprise victory was touted by some as proof that “nothing really matters”, with others describing it as “the election of disillusionment.” Indeed, the aftermath of that election was often characterised in terms of disengagement and disillusionment from certain constituencies.

However, what’s interesting about this reading of Palm Springs is how carefully the film rejects Nyles’ nihilism (Nylesm, perhaps?), by arguing that it comes from a place of luxury and privilege. As much as Nyles complains about the time loop, he is clearly comfortable here. He understands its rhythms and structures. More than that, he knows that anything that he does will be reset at the end of the day, and he is insulated from the consequences of his actions.

Remember, remember, the ninth of November.

Nyles has the luxury of doing nothing in response to the situation, which mirrors some of the discussions about the response to that game-changing election. Disengagement from reality is a luxury for those who don’t have to worry about how reality affects them. Nyles has the privilege of living in the loop, of avoiding “a world of death and poverty, debilitating stress.” In its own way, his nihilism is a method of escapism, and Palm Springs understands that it is a luxury of itself.

Nyles suffers having to wake up in a relationship that he knows is broken, but Sarah wakes up with a much heavier cloud hanging over her. Palm Springs makes a point that Sarah doesn’t have the same luxury as Nyles of enjoying the loop on its own terms, every day being taken back to the aftermath of her worse choice. All of this feels like a very pointed commentary, one anchored in a very specific cultural context. Palm Springs never belabours these points, but they clearly simmer away in the back of its mind.

Needing a time out.

More broadly, though, Palm Springs finds a way to work that classic Groundhog Day template in a way that specifically resonates with the millennial experience. Nyles is introduced as something of a slacker and a loser, declining to wear a suit to the wedding after so many loops, opting for swimming trunks and a Hawaiian shirt. Again, this feels like it reflects the cultural portrayal of millennials as overgrown and spoiled children, with little regard for the institutions and structures that their parents venerated.

However, Palm Springs is sympathetic to Nyles. Nyles hasn’t given up because he lacks any will or effort. Nyles has given up because he understands that he will never escape this particular moment. It’s an idea that resonates with the millennial experience – the reality that their generation is less likely to own a house or have a stable career or start a family. They are stuck in the “gig economy”, trying to make ends meet meet. Why would they buy into the expectations of a world that offers them no reason to?

Keeping each other in the loop.

When Sarah asks whether Nyles tries to sleep with people during the infinite loop, referencing time travel films like About Time, Nyles insists that he doesn’t really – and not just because of the icky consent issues. “It takes a lot of work, and I try to live my life at this point with as little effort as possible,” he acknowledges. Nyles is in someways the archetypal modern American comedy lead, a young man stuck in a state of arrested development and refusing to grow up. Indeed, the film even openly questions whether Nyles would leave the safety and security of the loop if he could.

Palm Springs feels like a more mature and reflective example of this familiar archetype than other recent films like The King of Staten Island or Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga. Through its heightened narrative framework, Palm Springs understands why Nyles feels the way that he does. It understands why Nyles has given up. It also understands that he needs to grow and do better, and that the world’s refusal to give him the space to do so is not an excuse of itself. It’s a very clever application of the Groundhog Day template to a modern comedy set-up.

Arrested development.

To be fair, the self-awareness helps here. Palm Springs begins with Nyles already familiar with the mechanics of the loop. He has already been through countless iterations by the time the film starts. As such, he is as familiar with how this sort of story works as any audience member who has seen Groundhog Day. Indeed, an early dancefloor sequence reveals that Nyles already has the rhythms and flows of the party down, like Bill Murray understands the rhythms and flows of the town by the end of Groundhog Day. Nyles already knows everybody’s story, before the film begins.

This is a risky gambit. It would be easy for the film to end up as ironic and detached as Nyles presents himself. However, this self-awareness serves to mask a genuine and sincere love story in the truest sense of the word. As Nyles and Sarah spend more and more time together, living the same day over and over again, they come to understand that maybe being stuck an eternally recurrent moment is not the worst thing in the world if there is somebody to share that experience.

A driving force.

“Nothing worse than going through this sh!t alone,” muses another trapped soul at one point in the film, and its a humanist perspective that Palm Springs shares. Palm Springs is almost achingly earnest in its rejection of the idea that “hell is other people.” In contrast, Palm Springs suggests that hell is an eternity spent in isolation with nobody to share a moment. This works to offset some of the self-aware irony of Palm Springs, and to anchor it in a sincere and affecting emotional reality.

Palm Springs occasionally feels just a little too ironic and self-referential, but it is also anchored in real human emotions. Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti play well off one another, sharing an easy chemistry that ties the film together. A sharp script deft balances its tone, finding a way to couch potentially cheesy romantic platitudes in just enough self-awareness that they work beautifully. Palm Springs proves that the time loop comedy is a formula worth repeating.

One Response

  1. ‘Again, this feels like it reflects the cultural portrayal of millennials as overgrown and spoiled children, with little regard for the institutions and structures that their parents venerated.’

    While there is something to that isn’t nihilism and slackerism much more of a Generation X trait (think the films of Kevin Smith, the ‘Breakfeast Club’ teens and so on)?

    When I think (negative) pop culture portrayals of millenials I tend to see them painted as ‘generation snowflake’ concerned about everything.

    Granted there is the ‘Xennial’ overlap of people born in the very late 70s and early 80s which the real life Andy Samberg (born 1978!) fits as do such fictional characters as Daria Morgendorffer, Buffy Summers and Cher Horowitz, were the cynicism and idealism sort of merge. I guess as a Xennial myself (1981) I’m partial to my own subgroup.

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