Time Has Lost All Meaning in “Palm Springs” (But You Won’t Mind)
I don’t quite remember how Palm Springs got on my radar first – the news that it broke the Sundance record by 69 cents, or my learning that Tyler Hoechlin was among the cast. Whatever the case, I’ve been anxiously anticipating its release while only knowing the bare bones of the plot. Suffice it to say that I was not disappointed. Palm Springs is a witty, engaging movie with a philosophical core that made me both laugh and cry.
The basic premise of Palm Springs is this: Groundhog’s Day at a wedding. When the film opens we are introduced to Nyles (Andy Samberg, who also executive produced) as he slogs through the day at a desert resort. The day in question is the wedding of Abe (Hoechlin) and Tala (Camila Mendes), and Nyles is the boyfriend of one of the bridesmaids, Misty (Meredith Hagner). When the maid of honor, Tala’s sister, Sarah (Christin Milioti) is too drunk to give her speech, Nyles saves the day. He and Sarah eventually end up in the desert, but their tryst is interrupted by something that I won’t reveal because I don’t want to ruin the surprise.
When they wake up, it’s the day of the wedding again.
It turns out that they are stuck in a time loop. We never find out how it started or how Nyles became aware of it originally, but we quickly discover he’s been stuck in it for a long time, and now Sarah is aware as well. At first, she tries to break out of it, even though Nyles tells her that he’s already tried. Nonetheless, she attempts to drive out of the loop, she gets the two of them killed, and she tries to “selfless” her way out of it. But nothing works.
Once Sarah settles into the knowledge that the day will keep repeating, that is when a lot of the fun in this film happens. Now that Nyles has a partner in his misery, he gets a little bit of his life back. The two use the day to do things like learn to shoot, do a choreographed dance routine in a biker bar, or try to fly a plane. These sequences are charming and funny because they’re silly, not because they’re at someone’s expense.
Palm Springs shows us how different people react to the same situation. Nyles, who has spent countless days reliving the same thing, has become resigned to his fate and turned to apathy and cynicism – but only in how it relates to himself. You learn, as the film goes on, that he doesn’t particularly like the fact that nothing he does matters; his actions have no lasting consequences, and he doesn’t use that knowledge to take revenge, or be cruel… at least not when we meet him. He’s become detached from reality and is just going through the motions, living each day essentially exactly the same. It’s a pretty spot-on metaphor for depression. (Not to mention life during this quarantine.)
Sarah is still optimistic that something can be done. And Sarah is ultimately the catalyst for breaking the loop, because the night before the wedding, she made a very bad decision, and every morning she wakes up facing the reality of that choice. And she doesn’t want to face that every day for the rest of her immortal life. She wants to atone and move on and be better.
And that, fundamentally, is one of the things I love about Palm Springs. I was never not a fan of Groundhog Day, but as I get older, I realize how much of that movie is focused on Phil essentially manipulating Rita into liking him, which in turn redeems him and gives him the perfect ending. By introducing us to Nyles when he’s already well and truly tired of this endless half-life, Palm Springs avoids a lot of the issues I had with Groundhog Day.
Nyles and Sarah don’t use the day to become a version of themselves they want other people to like; they want to become versions of themselves that they themselves will like. Their problems aren’t magically solved, and everything that they were carrying with them before the wedding is still there. But now they have the determination to own up to the consequences of their choices, and in that way, I feel like that’s a much more optimistic way to end things. Part of changing your life is recognizing you want to change and that you alone have the ability to do that. And you don’t have to be stuck in a time loop to make that choice for yourself, so it’s not an impossible task.
Nyles and Sarah are both compelling protagonists because they are complex. They are two very different people with a lot of similar characteristics. These are two smart, flawed individuals who are afraid of deeper feelings and getting hurt. This is a romantic-comedy, so you should not be at all surprised when the feelings start to develop. But the movie thankfully acknowledges the underlying concern that the only reason they feel that way is because they really only have each other. There is no tomorrow in their world, so is it even worth starting something that can’t ever really go anywhere except where it’s already been?
The supporting cast also does their jobs with aplomb. I was interested in this film because of Hoechlin, but he isn’t in it all that much. Still, he basically nails the few scenes he does have. Mendes does even less than Hoechlin, and I’m fairly convinced her character only exists as comparison to Milioti’s, but her role is to be the sweet, selfless younger sister and she does this quite well. Hagner is delightfully awful as the annoying girlfriend Nyles obviously no longer likes. J.K. Simmons steals the show in his scenes as Roy, another wedding guest.
I highly enjoyed Palm Springs. It’s entertaining – funny and thought-provoking, an old concept with a new look. It manages to take a message like “life is meaningless, nothing you do matters” and turn it on its ear – and still be funny in a non-self-deprecating way. It heavily resonated with me, especially with the way things are now, with every day seeming very much like the day before. I would definitely recommend it.
Palm Springs is currently streaming on Hulu.
Author: Jamie Sugah
Jamie has a BA in English with a focus in creative writing from The Ohio State University. She self-published her first novel, The Perils of Long Hair on a Windy Day, which is available through Amazon. She is currently an archivist and lives in New York City with her demon ninja vampire cat. She covers television, books, movies, anime, and conventions in the NYC area.
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