Entertainment Movies Palm Springs’ rom-com time-loop trip into a Groundhog daze
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Palm Springs’ rom-com time-loop trip into a Groundhog daze

Palm Springs
American streaming service Hulu acquired Palm Springs for a record US$17.5 million at the Sundance Film Festival. Photo: Amazon Prime Video
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It’s hard to imagine a worse place to spend eternity than at a straight couple’s resort wedding, but that’s just where Andy Samberg has found himself in this agreeably clever new romantic comedy, a millennial update on Groundhog Day that muses on loneliness, love and quantum physics while keeping it playful and funny – there’s nary a lapse into navel-gazing to be seen.

Through some freak whim of the cosmos, Samberg’s thirtysomething Nyles has gotten stuck in an infinite time loop, which means he wakes up every day at the Palm Springs, California, wedding of Tala (Camila Mendes) and Abe (Tyler Hoechlin), two friends of his self-absorbed, cheating girlfriend, Misty (Meredith Hagner).

It’s the kind of event where people deliver speeches that end with “Hashtag life goals!” – where you’d need to be perpetually drunk, at a minimum, even if you weren’t consigned to some interdimensional purgatory.

“Today, tomorrow, yesterday, it’s all the same,” says Nyles, decked out in a Hawaiian shirt and chugging beers with the cheerful nihilism of a man who’s long forgotten how he got here, much less cares.

Samberg produced the film with his Lonely Island partners Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone. Photo: Amazon Prime Video

It’s fitting that director Max Barbakow’s Sundance hit, which was acquired for a record sum by US platform Hulu and is streaming locally through Amazon, opens with its protagonist in such an advanced state of cynicism.

Andy Siara’s screenplay acknowledges that the audience, like Nyles, will already be familiar with the stages of disbelief through which his character must progress, an element that’s been common to every Groundhog Day descendent from Happy Death Day to last year’s Russian Doll.

His jaded acceptance of fate may as well be that of viewers blunting themselves on endlessly recycled content – the streaming giants’ very own infinite time loops.

Instead, the film pivots on Sarah (Cristin Milioti), the older sister of the bride and black sheep of the family – and the only person in attendance who wants to be at the wedding less than Nyles does. With her enormous eyes and frown, she looks like a Keane portrait trapped inside a “Live, Laugh, Love” print.

“I know it’s [the film] sort of marketed as a rom-com, I’ve always thought of it as an existential comedy,” Milioti told Harper’s Bazaar. Photo: Amazon Prime Video

Sarah is drawn to Nyles’ seemingly free spirit, so much so that she ends up following him into the fateful time tunnel on the desert outskirts – and winds up trapped in the same day with him.

“The only way to really live within this is to embrace the fact that nothing matters,” Nyles tells his exasperated new partner in time. “We kind of have no choice but to live, so I think your best bet is to just learn how to suffer existence.”

Sure enough, these two outcasts develop a fast friendship, and many of Palm Springs‘ funniest sequences involve them bonding over attempts to cheat time and death, before finally giving in and enjoying their predicament – which more or less amounts to playing a lot of pranks on the wedding guests, and dumb-dancing to synth-pop pioneer Patrick Crowley’s Megatron Man in a local dive bar.

Meredith Hagner played a similarly unlikeable character in the TV series Search Party.Photo: Amazon Prime Video

Life could be worse.

Samberg and Milioti are fine company. His low-key goofiness and her high-strung mania make for a screwball match, and it’s fun to watch his ageing Lonely Island shtick get challenged by a foil who wants out, who’s convinced that – however much the laws of space and time might need to be challenged – there’s still the possibility for growth and change.

“If I had known that I was going to be stuck with a pretentious sad boy for the rest of eternity,” Sarah screams at Nyles at one point, “I would have stayed so far away from you.”

Their double act adds ripples to the more obvious pay-offs suggested by the premise, and it’s a credit to Siara’s script that he’s able to keep the audience guessing with enough original twists – including a winning supporting turn from the great JK Simmons, reliably antagonistic as Roy, an aggrieved wedding guest with a similar predicament and an arsenal of deadly weapons to grind.

That it’s so breezy is part of the charm – there’s little of the deadly, Charlie Kaufman-esque solipsism that could befall the idea. Yet for all its clever contortions, there’s surprisingly little that’s genuinely weird, though it’s not for want of suggestion.

“The best rom-coms, the ones that really last and resonate, feel honest,” Samberg told the Los Angeles Times. Photo: Amazon Prime Video

The film’s most memorable image is a prehistoric vista to rival the grace of Terrence Malick, but it’s a tease, a winsome sketch in the margins that hints at something beyond.

Like the veneer of cynicism and winking dialogue, it’s a front for the screenplay’s sincere conviction that love will work everything out – an illusion the film sells with an explosive climax that seems, for a fleeting moment, as though it might finally surrender to abandon.

As much as it tangles with life’s essential meaninglessness, Palm Springs keeps walking back uncertainty with easy humour, dodging the abyss with charm.

“At least you have each other,” Roy assures Nyles, betraying the movie’s true sentimentality. “Nothing’s worse than going through this shit alone.”

ABC