Even though Max Barbakow and Andy Siara, who co-wrote the screenplay to this film with the former taking on the responsibility of a director, were allegedly inspired by Jungian psychology and driven by their love for self-aware mumblecore comedy, it is impossible to escape the simple fact that the biggest inspiration imprinted on Palm Springs is the Harold Ramis-directed irreverent classic, Groundhog Day… among others within this genre.
Yes, genre. It turns out that the gimmick of a time loop isn’t a mere curiosity that has been used sporadically as a way to spice up tried and true narrative templates, like science-fiction (Source Code, Edge of Tomorrow) or horror (Happy Death Day, Happy Death Day 2U). We are not talking about four or five movies here. We are talking about fifty (here’s a more or less comprehensive list courtesy of Wikipedia). Now, I don’t want this piece to turn into an exhaustive survey of the usage of time loops in cinema, which by the way increased in intensity quite rapidly in the last decade. What I want to highlight is the simple fact that the filmmakers behind Palm Springs weren’t merely navigating the legacy of Groundhog Day, but they were rather attempting to stay fresh and relevant in an extremely narrow subgenre of narrative storytelling with rigidly defined parameters, expectations, pitfalls and clichés.
And for the most part Palm Springs succeeds in this regard as it treats its central conceit on its own unique terms while staying respectfully tethered to the baggage of this subgenre. What sets this film apart from the vast majority of other usages of the time loop template is the way it is (mostly) utilized within the narrative. Time and again we have seen how filmmakers deployed this gimmick of an eternally repeating day as a way to spruce up plot development and make the arcs of their protagonists a little bit more interesting. However, it almost always involves a central notion of the character trapped in the time loop attempting to figure out or unlock their way out; and it usually involves identifying a successful sequence of events or steps needed to progress the plot in the right way or – more compellingly – to enable the character to grow in the direction needed for them to leave the loop. Jake Gyllenhaal’s character cannot leave the time loop until he identifies the terrorist responsible for blowing up a train in Source Code. Jessica Roth’s character in Happy Death Day must identify and stop her murderer. And Bill Murray in Groundhog Day must spend enough time stuck in the loop to grow as a human being and become someone capable of loving.
Palm Springs seemingly leans towards the latter idea, though it eventually changes tack. However, it equally attempts to reinvent its own relationship with the time loop gimmick by using it (at least for a little while) as a philosophical conversation starter and poses as set of intriguing questions. What would you do if you had eternity at your disposal? How would you spend your time if you knew you’d never grow old or die? Would anything matter? And if so, what would be the things that matter in a scenario where nothing is of consequence?
This is how we meet Nyles (Andy Samberg), a man who is forced to relive the day of somebody else’s wedding over and over and over again. In fact, in contrast to Groundhog Day we don’t follow Nyles into the loop and see him come to terms with the shock of realizing this is happening to him. This happens later to another person, Sarah (Cristin Milioti), but that’s beside the point. What matters is that for all we know and care, Nyles has relived this day thousands of times. Maybe millions. Or even trillions. He is for better or worse immortal. He doesn’t remember what his job was. He spends his days drinking himself into a stupor and having casual sex with everyone at the wedding. Because nothing matters in the long run. When Sarah accidentally finds herself trapped in the time loop with him, things take a dramatic turn and this is where the film starts offering answers to these deep philosophical questions posed by the predicament of having eternity at one’s disposal.
That’s because what makes eternity bearable is human companionship. Thinking about it, it shouldn’t really come as a surprise because the idea of forming relationships is what keeps most of us going for the duration of our regular life expectancy, which is long enough if you ask me. This notion is fleshed out particularly well thanks to the character of Roy (J.K. Simmons) who is also trapped in the time loop against his will and slides into the role of a chaotic antagonist. However, at one point Roy and Nyles share a pivotal scene together where Roy admits to have realized he is trapped in the best day of his life because he gets to spend time with his family and bask in the bliss of never-ending afternoon barbecues, and observe his frolicking children.
This is a crucial point both for the film’s thematic progression and the eventual decision-making for the protagonist. On one hand, eternity with the right companion seems perfect, but what gives life value is its finite nature. It’s great to see your little daughter play with her toys in the yard, but what gives fatherhood meaning is the idea of seeing her grow up into an adult and have life of her own; which is what Roy will never experience. The same goes for love which means much more in the context of the finite nature of life. Sadly, this also means that the film as a whole simply could not exist – based on its own thematic musings – without satisfying at least some of the expectations baked into the subgenre it chose as its structural backbone; even though I think I’d have liked it more had it had the balls to resist the urge and succumb to the Groundhog Day template. Granted, it would have made the film inherently more tragic and tonally jarring given the fact it carried itself on its substantial comedic chops, but I am willing to bet I’d appreciate the audacity to leave things unresolved, ambiguous and, hence, a bit more cerebral.
But that would have been a completely different movie. Instead, Palm Springs changes gear and slides perfectly into its genre groove to stage a formulaic-yet-somewhat-satisfying conclusion to its own narrative predicament. Therefore, it undeniably succeeds as a romantic comedy because the characters end up where they are supposed to and they are enjoyable enough to watch as they journey towards this inescapable conclusion. It works. Samberg and Milioti have great chemistry on screen, Barbakow gives them enough room to inhabit their characters in a relatable way and the film finds its climax in familiarity. It’s honestly hard to argue with that… but I can’t help but think that Palm Springs would have been a completely different beast had it leaned more decisively onto its thematic clutch and let the plot flywheel turn impotently whilst turning the movie into a Jarmusch-esque exercise in philosophy-via-absurdism that tips its hat towards the intellectual in the room without feeling the need to satisfy its surface-level requirements. Alas…