Every year or so, there’s at least one feel-good movie that everyone loves and can’t stop talking about (if only for a week or so in this streaming age). You hear of it and it sounds too good to be true but it definitely is not. You get around to it, and not only is it as good as people said it was, but it’s even better. Doesn’t even have to be a comedy, it can just fill you with that good feeling, (ed: which given the year we’ve all had, we definitely need). Last year’s was what remained as my favourite film of the whole year: Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart. And in 2020, it is Max Barbakow and the Lonely Island’s Palm Springs, so far my favourite film of 2020.
Palm Springs starts off as a simple romantic comedy full of “good vibes” and set around a single location: a wedding in the Southern Californian city of Coachella. Andy Samberg’s Nyles is the most chilled-out dude there, dressed in shorts and a Hawaiian shirt, always with Mexican beer in hand, even during the full black-tie wedding that night. He moves about the venue with such ease that it’s quite perplexing. One such person who stands mesmerised by his strange energy is Cristin Milioti’s Sarah, a washed-up borderline-alcoholic who wants to get through her sister’s wedding as fast as possible.
Nyles and Sarah hook up, and immediately you think you’re in for a simple ride of boy-meets-girl, boy-falls-in-love-with-girl, generic romance, the kind done to death by half of the movies of the 90s, and now seemingly half the stuff Netflix pumps out. But Nyles is attacked by a stranger in the desert, and crawls to a mysterious wall of light hidden in the rocks. Sarah follows, and gets stuck in the defining feature of Palm Springs that sets it far apart from its apparent genre-siblings: Nyles has been living in an endless time loop of the same day for an unknown amount of time, and now Sarah is stuck too.
What follows is a play on the Groundhog Day (or most recently Russian Doll) idea of the endless time loop which causes the subject to be introspective on all the mistakes of their life. Here, Palm Springs spins that subgenre ever so slightly, focusing on two people who really shouldn’t stand each other and could have just been each other’s guilty one-night-stand, but now they are stuck in what could be eternity with each other. Better make the most of it.
The most obvious metaphor for this plot and its setting is that Nyles and Sarah are like an old married couple, the fun having dissipated a long time ago and now one side is complacent and the other seeks escape from monotony. Life is no fun if you can’t live it. And that time loop plot makes for an excellent parallel to any relationship, as the first few scenes of a montage are Sarah and Nyles doing literally whatever they want, including hilariously hijacking a single-engine plane which explodes, interrupting the wedding for an operatic revenge drama, drinking as much as possible, crashing cars, shooting guns, dancing all the time. But still, fun can never last forever. And that is where the brilliant divide of the characters comes into place that director Max Barbakow and writer Andy Siara use so efficiently and carefully.
As the first character we meet, Nyles naturally feels like he’s the focus of the entire plot, but he’s already reached his midpoint as a character when we meet him. He’s already spent years in a time loop all by himself doing whatever he wants and is perfectly comfortable in that existence. Sarah is the obvious point-of-view character as she has to be introduced to this universe and what the rules are, thus giving us the audience that information. Still, they share the focus and equal motivation to end results that feel completely natural. Nothing in Palm Springs feels unexpected once the rules are established and the world is made. This is brilliant and simple filmmaking that countless comedies and dramas can easily forget in the service of a “gotcha” moment or trick ending.
By its core nature of Palm Springs being a time loop movie, you are already imbued with the sense that anything could happen in the end. Perhaps it’s also because, unlike Groundhog Day, this film wants to have at least some research behind the lofty idea of a time loop. After seeing that there is no resolution to be had in this life, Sarah decides to learn about quantum physics and figure a way out of their dilemma with science. So by another nature of having quantum physics here to lead to a resolution of the story, the ending could be anything. The characters themselves say as much in the film. So when the ending does finally come, the filmmakers add so much there that can satisfy those looking for a closed finale but still entertain audiences who crave that tantalising ambiguity that begs multiple viewings.
This really is a brilliant film. On the surface it is a straightforward feel-good romantic comedy starring Andy Samberg who brings almost his own kind of comedy sub-genre to his work, whether it be Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping or Brooklyn 99. But his character is still reserved emotionally, allowing Samberg chances to shine brighter as an actor than I think I’ve seen from him. His chemistry with Cristin Miliot is what cements the quality of the entire film, with moments highlighting affection just by looking at one another, or the sweet smile they share at the beginning of a new day that forges a relationship that resonates strong.
Cristin Milioti already had my attention after stealing the entire last season of How I Met Your Mother as the titular mother. She plays Sarah with that kind of late-20s, early-30s broken humanity that is so relatable to any audience. As bad as she has been in her life and through all of her terrible choices, she still knows that forward is the only real journey ahead. It creates conflict, of course, with Nyles’ desirable yet immature view of the world that is really just toxic nihilism. These two are not flimsy stereotypes of the romance or comedy genre. They are real and balanced characters who find one another and change each other’s lives. You believe their love and friendship, and it’s exactly the kind of goodness you need in this stupid year.
Palm Springs struck a deep chord within me, not just because it has more meaning than any comedy released this year or even in the last decade, but because it is an absolute blast to watch which is the most refreshing thing to experience in a year that has been mostly devoid of fun. The performances all work in spades thanks to perfect casting across the board, Andy Siara’s script is precise and hilarious in more ways than one, Max Barbakow’s direction is stunning, the whole film looks gorgeous thanks to cinematographer Quyen “Q” Tran, and all the surprises work. J.K. Simmons shows up and is an absolute king of comedy and nailing that kind of emotional core that Nyles needs in his life. It all moves at a clip and packs so many punches in a speedy 90-minute runtime. Surreal at times, sincerely heartfelt through every scene, Palm Springs is the perfect film for anything you’re going through right now, and one of the most delightful films I’ve seen in a long time.
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