Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Photo: Jessica Perez/Hulu

Palm Springs is the definitive 2020 rom-com

Photo: Jessica Perez/Hulu
Graphic: Libby McGuire

“What would you do if you were stuck in one place, and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?” —Phil Connors, Groundhog Day

When Palm Springs started streaming on Hulu in July, it felt like the movie of the moment. The film’s stuck-in-the-same-day premise provided an eerily prescient metaphor for the hazy, repetitive blur of our pandemic summer. Now, five months later, it’s clear that Palm Springs wasn’t just the defining movie of the summer but one of the defining movies of the year. Much like a time loop that proves harder to escape than a character first assumes, the COVID-19 pandemic has lasted far longer than most of us ever could’ve imagined in the early days of lockdown. In other words, there’s new resonance, in 2020, to watching two unhappy people navigate the existential dread of weeks and months blending into one meaningless expanse of time.

One reason Palm Springs became such a hit is because it combines the two main forms of entertainment that people have turned to during quarantine: light, fluffy escapism like Notting Hill or Something’s Gotta Give, and darkly relevant stories like Contagion or Alien. Palm Springs offers the joy of watching Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti fall in love over the course of several fun-as-hell montages that turn the time-loop zaniness up to 11. But it also delivers some relevant existential musing about the human condition: If you had to be trapped in purgatory, would it be better to be there by yourself or with an unwitting stranger as company? Which is scarier, loneliness or commitment?

Of course, Palm Springs’ success isn’t solely due to COVID. It was a buzzy hit when it debuted at Sundance in January, back when the idea of living through a global pandemic seemed impossible. The Lonely Island-produced film broke the record for the highest sale in the festival’s history, thanks to a cheeky 69 cents added to its $17.5 million price tag. Enthusiastic Sundance reviews found plenty of meaning in the film as a metaphor for millennial ennui and marriage. (Sundance audiences went in unspoiled on the film’s time-loop premise, something the trailer later gave away.) But there’s no doubt that Palm Springs has taken on new significance thanks to the state of the world in which it was released—as have other other time-loop stories like Happy Death Day, Before I Fall, Edge Of Tomorrow, and, of course, the godfather of the genre, Groundhog Day.

Interestingly, Palm Springs didn’t actually start as a time-loop movie. Screenwriter Andy Siara and director Max Barbakow first imagined the script as an absurdist comedic mumblecore take on Leaving Las Vegas, centered on a despondent thirtysomething who travels to Palm Springs to kill himself, only to slowly rediscover a sense of meaning in his life. Siara and Barbakow came up with the idea as students at the American Film Institute, with an equal eye on Jungian philosophical ideas and the pragmatic importance of writing a small-budget film that would be easy to produce. After working as a writer on AMC’s innovative series Lodge 49, however, Siara decided to take a bigger sci-fi swing. Once Samberg and the Lonely Island team came onboard, they helped creatively shepherd the script toward the finish line.

In a clever riff on the Groundhog Day formula, Palm Springs opens with lackadaisical Nyles (Samberg) already stuck inside the wedding-day time loop. He’s been there long enough to have memorized every minute of the day and forgotten what he used to do for a living. (Siara suggested that Nyles has spent over 40 years in the loop.) But Nyles’ “live life with minimal effort” approach is challenged when despondent sister-of-the-bride Sarah (Milioti) gets stuck alongside him. Nyles long ago made peace with the idea of living forever in a mundanely unhappy day where he’s a fringe player in someone else’s wedding. (He’s the boyfriend of one of the bridesmaids.) Sarah is trapped inside a much more fraught day in her own life, however, which makes her more adamant about breaking out of the loop.

The sci-fi genre has always used heightened concepts to comment on the human experience, and sci-fi romances—think About Time, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, or The Time Traveler’s Wife—apply that same idea to the nature of relationships. Nyles is a man committed to only living in the present, while Sarah is a woman who feels trapped by her past. The question is whether spending eternity reliving the same day together can bring them to a healthier middle ground. As David Ehrlich put it in his IndieWire review, “Imagine being surrounded by a million strangers in a world of limitless possibilities, and winding up with the same one every night because of one fateful choice that seemed like a good idea a million years ago. Imagine… being married.”

Palm Springs is really three movies in one: a rom-com, a sci-fi film, and an existential comedy with a nihilistic streak. The filmmakers were hyperaware of the need to satisfy fans of all three of those genres—to throw a bone to those tracking the sci-fi rules of the time loop but also create a central emotional arc that feels earned without being saccharine. It’s impressive that they thread the needle as well as they do. Palm Springs is deviously funny—always one step ahead of its audience when it comes to time-loop tropes (“Yeah, no, I’ve never thought about the multiverse,” Nyles sarcastically scoffs) and adept at pushing the comedic envelope (as during a quick-fire montage of all the people Nyles has hooked up with in the loop) in a way that never feels mean-spirited. The ultimate example of the film’s dexterity in shifting from absurdist shenanigans to moving emotional pathos comes via J.K. Simmons’ Roy, another guest trapped out of time.

Yet the weakest element of Palm Springs is actually the one that’s most central: its romantic comedy aims. It’s the reason I’m a little less high on the film than many of my fellow critics. Unlike the best rom-coms, Palm Springs too often sacrifices character for the sake of comedy. For instance, the third act revelation that Sarah has become an expert in quantum physics is a hilarious subversion of the way time-loop movies usually resolve via karma. But the comedic surprise also requires her to drop out of the story just when she should be deepening her connection with Nyles and processing the biggest part of her emotional arc.

I’d even go so far as to say that Palm Springs focuses on the wrong half of its central duo. While Nyles follows the familiar Apatovian arc of a man-child who learns to grow up and embrace the joy that can come from responsibility and commitment, Sarah experiences a much more complex journey involving betrayal and redemption. Yet too much of her story unfolds off screen, with only passing references to a dead mom, a failed marriage, and the fact that she’s considered the “black sheep” of her family. Although half of the film’s ensemble are Sarah’s relatives, there’s virtually no time devoted to her dynamic with her father (Peter Gallagher) or stepmom (Jacqueline Obradors). Even her ostensibly central relationship to her sister (Camila Mendes) is given just one quick wedding toast sequence. Sarah doesn’t get a cohesive emotional arc, so much as the broad characteristics of being flawed, cynical, and independent.

In fact, other than a shared love of dick jokes and dark humor, there’s not much to Nyles and Sarah’s connection, which is forged almost entirely in montage. It’s a misstep that’s not totally disastrous. I’ve long argued that romantic comedies can still be good even when their central romances are lacking, and Samberg is so incredibly charismatic that it’s never a burden to spend more time with Nyles. But Palm Springs is also part of a trend in which rom-coms centered on snarky male leads tend to get more leeway for their use of thin clichés. Nyles and Sarah’s climactic cave-side conversation has no more emotional depth than your average “rush to the airport” rom-com speech, even as it’s treated as something far more profound.

Palm Springs is the rare 90-minute comedy that I want to be longer, which is both a critique of what’s not there and a testament to what is. (It actually sounds like there’s a decent amount of material on the cutting room floor, including some more fleshed out characterizations for the other wedding guests and several major monologues for Sarah.) As is, it’s a film that succeeds at two of its three aims and sort of drops the ball on the third. Still, there’s an appreciable gutsiness to Palm Springs, a film that randomly features dinosaurs in the desert in what’s designed as both a metaphor for the feeling of falling in love and a nod to the fact that Siara loves Jurassic Park. While Palm Springs shares DNA with so many of the time-loop stories that have come before it (including Netflix’s excellent Russian Doll series), it carves out its own unique comedic corner in the genre too.

Despite the upheaval of the year, 2020 hasn’t slowed down the resurgence of the romantic comedy genre. We’ve gotten three teen romance sequels, a really fun Jane Austen adaptation, two films that put lesbian love stories front and center, a throwback to ’90s Black cinema, and even one rom-com committed to the big screen experience mid-pandemic (among many, many other streaming offerings). Yet none of these have captured the ethos of 2020 as much or as well as Palm Springs has. “Nothing worse than going through this shit alone,” Roy tells Nyles in the film’s most moving scene. Palm Springs argues that it’s crucial to find joy in the days you’ve been given, rather than wishing for different days altogether. Whatever the film’s flaws may be, that’s a message that definitely resonates in this strange “alone together” year.

Next time: Gender roles get a cheerful holiday swap in 1945’s Christmas In Connecticut.

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Caroline Siede is a pop culture critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. Her interests include superhero movies, feminist theory, and Jane Austen novels.