Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti Star in a (Mostly*) Fresh Take on the Romantic Comedy
DIRECTOR: MAX BARBAKOW/2020
Remember when everyone was trying to figure out how to talk about Parasite last fall without giving away the twists? Say hello to 2020’s version of that! While Palm Springs is nothing like the most recent Best Picture winner in tone or plot, it does share a certain je ne sais quoi that tastes best when it’s unspoiled in any way. So like when I reviewed Parasite, this is a Choose Your Own Adventure review of the new Hulu movie. Feel free to read everything now, or if you’d prefer, skip the paragraphs with plot details and come back after watching.
For those of you who know nothing of the premise (a position I was fortunate enough to be in as well), a few details it’s safe to know about this Sundance hit:
- Palm Springs is a creative take on the romantic comedy, with an emphasis on the comedy.
- I recommend skipping the trailer since it gives away many of the best surprises and jokes.
- If you know how you feel about Andy Samberg/The Lonely Island’s sense of humor, you already know how you’ll feel about many of those jokes.
- Re: those jokes, this is not a movie to watch with your children.
(Plot details!) For those of you ready to get down to the nitty gritty, let’s just call it what it is: Palm Springs is an update of Groundhog Day. Andy Samberg picks up Bill Murray’s mantle from the 1993 classic rom-com as Nyles, a name that only feels more apt as you realize how nihilistic he is about this whole time loop situation. Like Phil Connors wakes up every day anticipating the Groundhog Festival, Nyles wakes up anticipating a wedding in which his girlfriend is a bridesmaid. But unlike Phil, Nyles knows the source of his time travel is glowing inside a desert cave, and anyone who enters will join him in this quantum anomaly. The inciting incident for our visit to this Palm Springs wedding is not Nyles’s discovery of this cave but Sarah’s (Cristin Milioti), who joins him in reliving the day well after he’s memorized it down to the minute. (End plot details.)
The beauty of Palm Springs is that it manages to take a familiar plot engine feel fresh again, making it the rare rom-com whose ending doesn’t feel like a foregone conclusion. Much of this is thanks to the top-notch cast. Samberg and Cristin Milioti spark with chemistry to spare, and J.K. Simmons is a hilarious, out-of-left-field foil to their quirky and complicated romance. Most of the supporting actors get moments to shine, too, which means the laughs come quickly and often.
(Plot details!) The other big thanks is to writer Andy Siara, who takes the story beyond the places you expect. Yes, Nyles, Sarah, and Roy (Simmons) try suicide as a way out of this time loop. Yes, they commit crimes and hook up with other wedding guests since they know there will be no consequences. In those ways, their Ecclesiastes-esque search for meaning isn’t so different from Phil’s, but the tone of this script is much zanier than Groundhog Day, and Nyles and Sarah find much weirder ways to spend their
days day. Creating dance routines, drunkenly stealing a plane, pulling pranks—there’s a lot more you can do in a time loop when you’re not alone, especially since we don’t have to spend as much time figuring out the rules of the situation as we did in Punxsutawney, PA. (End plot details.)
That said, when you have a joke-heavy script, not all of them are going to land, which is why the writing is also my biggest hang-up. The Lonely Island guys (whom you may know best from ‘00s SNL shorts like “D*** in a Box”) are producers of this film, and in some ways, I’m not convinced their sense of humor has changed since they met in middle school. The story machinations may be innovative, but many attempts at humor are raunchy and underdeveloped (e.g. I don’t think much more thought was given to one sequence than, “Wouldn’t it be hilarious if we flashed back to all the people he’s hooked up with?”), and others get stuck as juvenile clichés (e.g. I don’t think much more thought was given to a lot of moments than, “Aren’t genitals funny?”).
Some of this comes down to your own sense of humor (I’m sure you’ve got a better idea now about mine), but it’s frustrating because it feels like a big asterisk* on a recommendation I’d otherwise give wholeheartedly. It’s not often we get a rom-com that finds opportunities to ask big questions about life as we watch a charismatic couple fall in love. How do we find connection with other people? How do you make life worth living when you’re stuck in a terrible situation? How do you live with guilt when your mistakes keep following you? Heck, what is the meaning of life? These questions are all given thoughtful consideration, which is more than what you’ve come to expect from this genre. I wish so many comedies didn’t feel the need to cover their sweet centers with a layer of crass jokes because Palm Springs is at its best when it’s sentimental, goofy, and introspective, a rare combo that makes it a worthwhile reimagining of one of the best rom-coms ever.