Park City is a bit like the Punxsutawney of Groundhog Day, and not just because of the snow that reliably blankets its winding streets. Every January, the same thing happens: Studios try to outbid each other for the movies generating the most buzz —and usually, the “winner” ends up grossly overspending on their acquisition, which almost never is as rapturously received off the mountain as it was on. Last year, for example, Amazon paid a respective $13 million and $14 million for Late Night and Brittany Runs A Marathon, two mediocre comedies met with a collective shrug of disinterest from audiences when they finally hit theaters several months later. Everyone is still chasing that Little Miss Sunshine windfall, hoping for a big return on their big investment.
This year is no exception, at least in how deep buyers are reaching into their pockets. In fact, we now have a new record for biggest sale in the festival’s history, though the previous one wasn’t exactly shattered: Earlier this week, Hulu and Neon together spent just 69 cents more than the $17.5 million Fox Searchlight did in 2016 for the distribution rights to Birth Of A Nation. Why just 69 cents? Probably because it cracked up Andy Samberg, who stars in the charming, madcap romantic comedy the two studios jointly acquired. Call me crazy, but I think this one might be worth the price—it’s that rare pure crowd-pleaser that requires little in the way of apologies, and could really connect with audiences. But then, I thought the same thing about another hit Sundance rom-com, Sleeping With Other People, and that flopped hard at the box office.
The big thing Palm Springs (Grade: B+) has going for is its borrowed but enduringly irresistible high concept. The film, directed by Max Barbakow and written by Andy Siara, pretty quickly reveals its premise, but there’s still a pleasure in experiencing how they let the cat out of the bag; if you want to go into it fresh, stop reading here and skip down past the next photo. Samberg stars as Nyles, a slacker doofus stuck at a destination wedding in Southern California, which he’s attending as the date of a bridesmaid. Blithely wandering the reception in a loud and very informal short-sleeve shirt, Nyles clearly doesn’t have any fucks to give. But he also seems to have a suspiciously premonitory sense of how the night will play out. And before long, Palm Springs reveals the reason for both: He’s stuck in a time warp, waking up every morning to find himself still in Palm Springs on the morning of the wedding.
That’s right: This is yet another riff on Groundhog Day. It’s a very clever one, though—partially because it actually adopts a couple of ideas straight out of Danny Rubin’s original draft of the 1993 Bill Murray classic. For one, Nyles is already stuck in the loop when the film begins; he has, in fact, been reliving this same day for so long that he’s forgotten what he ever did for a living or what his life outside of Palm Springs looked like. The other idea it swipes from Rubin and then tweaks is that Nyles isn’t alone in his ordeal—in the first act, he ends up accidentally getting another guest of the wedding, the bride’s black-sheep older sister Sarah (Cristin Milioti), trapped in the repeating day with him. What this allows is for the filmmakers to pit Nyles’ sardonic resignation against Sarah’s panic and denial—“Can we just skip this stage?” he sighs when she first reaches for, say, a head-on collision with a semi as a futile escape route.
The film employs its magical conceit as a multi-purpose metaphor for a long-term relationship: Once they’ve become coconspirators in time-killing mischief, Nyles and Sarah basically carve out their own little reality—it’s an outlandish expression of that feeling of being the only two people in the universe, the only ones that really get it. The flip side, of course, is that monogamy can leave you feeling as stuck as the characters, living the same day over and over again, with only your significant other for company. But Palm Springs wears all that baggage lightly. It’s a sadly rare thing: a sweet, madly inventive, totally mainstream romantic comedy, buoyed by inspired jolts of comic violence (some of them provided by J.K. Simmons as another wedding guest with a very big bone to pick with Nyles). And in at least one respect, it does actually improve upon Groundhog Day: This is a true duet, putting its metaphysically imprisoned leads on more or less equal footing, with Milioti expressing a screwball agony—a hilarious existential desperation—Andie MacDowell certainly wasn’t afforded. If filmmakers are going to keep asking us to relive this same premise, they’d be wise to recycle it as wonderfully as Palm Springs does.
Which it to say, I get why someone might drop $18 million on this movie. Less clear is why Searchlight, the now Disney-owned mini-major that splurged and then lost big bucks on Birth Of A Nation, would shell out $12 million for a film as flawed and not necessarily fool-proof as The Night House (Grade: C+), whose sale was the first big one of the fest. Part of the characteristically uneven Sundance midnight slate, this simultaneously goofy and dull supernatural mystery from David Bruckner, who made The Ritual and also the best segment from the first V/H/S, casts Rebecca Hall as a teacher whose husband commits suicide and then maybe begins haunting their spacious lakehouse, flipping on lights and blasting the stereo at all hours of the night.
Hall throws herself into the role, committing fully to the way her character’s fear edges into aching hope—as Bruckner put it in his introduction at the premiere, this is a film that asks whether the existence of ghosts might be more comforting than frightening. Unfortunately, the script by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski is clunky—in the convoluted nature of its reveals and also in the sometimes-baffling behavior on display. (People grieve in different ways, but what excuse do the supporting characters have for blurting out rude questions at a widow or showing up at the home of a stranger who’s confronted them in public?) Bruckner, perhaps aware of the material’s shortcomings, overcompensates with sound and fury, emphasis on the sound: This may not be the scariest film of the festival, but it’s almost certainly the loudest; one jump scare cranks the volume up to eardrum-splitting levels and then just keeps it there for a good 30 seconds. At least these deafening stings might jolt viewers out of the premature slumber The Night House otherwise provokes.
There aren’t too many jump scares, painfully loud or otherwise, in Relic (Grade: B), a much more effective midnight selection from first-time Japanese-Aussie director Natalie Erika James. The film concerns the mysterious disappearance of an elderly widow (Robyn Nevin); after a few days gone, she just as mysteriously returns to find her daughter (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter (Bella Heathcote) in her home, suddenly newly concerned about what to do about her deteriorating mental state. The kind of dread-infused slow burn that’s very much in vogue at the moment, Relic is so entirely, transparently, even explicitly about the horror of dementia and losing a loved one to it that the more traditional genre elements—like a potential supernatural presence in the house—feel rather redundant, maybe even unnecessary. (Who needs a metaphor when you have blood-chilling scenes of an old woman lashing out violently at family members she doesn’t recognize anymore?) But after a lot of ominous build, the film rallies hard in its go-for-broke, haunted-house final act. And it closes on a strangely, profoundly moving note—an ending so great, it should add a zero to any offer a studio might think of making for the movie.