One of the many strange things about having the summer movie season, such as it is, migrate to television and streaming video is the absence of weekend box-office figures to tell us which movies people are actually watching. If a superhero movie starring Charlize Theron drops on Netflix, does it make a sound? If a film directed by Judd Apatow and a movie starring Will Ferrell are facing off for your evening entertainment dollar, which slightly past-his-peak comic impresario will win? Someone, somewhere, knows the answers to these questions, but for most of us the only way to gauge the success of a direct-to-small-screen summer movie is through the most archaic of all measures: the ineffable, unquantifiable substance known as buzz.
Judged by that metric, the most successful summer flick currently gracing iPads and flat screens might be Palm Springs, a quantum-loop romantic comedy (a sub-sub-genre, if there ever was one) starring Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti as unhappy wedding guests trapped in a temporal anomaly that throws them back to the same desert-resort morning, dooming them to relive the wedding day.
“It’s one of those infinite-time-loop scenarios you might have heard about,” Samberg’s Nyles says to Milioti’s Sarah the morning after she discovers that, after an interrupted hook-up and a close encounter with a glowing cave, she’s been sucked into the same eternal-return experience that he’s been occupying for some innumerable span of days. “That I might have heard about?” she returns, agape — branding herself immediately as a cinematic philistine who’s never seen Groundhog Day.
Since I have seen the great Bill Murray–Harold Ramis philosophicomedy, I will admit to being a little suspicious of the pleasure that people seem to be taking from this somewhat slight, amusing, Millennial-generation reimagining of its story. Not that I begrudge them the delight. I’m just not sure a story about a pair of young Americans who wake up with the same day yawning before them again and again and again would be quite so appealing if its pandemic-era release didn’t make the time-loop circumstance seem terribly familiar. (Confession: The morning after I finished Palm Springs, my alarm clock went off, I heard the footsteps of our four-year-old, and I cracked open an eye and thought to myself, How long have I been reliving this day, anyway?)
So the movie got lucky in its moment. If it had come out six months earlier or 16 months later, it might have been interpreted mostly as a story about those mysterious Millennials, whose troubles establishing themselves in adulthood are distilled into archetypes by Nyles and Sarah: He’s the “pretentious sadboy,” as she memorably dubs him; she’s the self-destructive semi-alcoholic. He’s come to the wedding as the boyfriend of a bridesmaid, an unhappy relationship whose origins remain mysterious. She’s come because her sister’s getting married, but she couldn’t be more cynical (for good reasons, we discover) about love.
So neither one seems to have a strong reason to miss the normal, one-day-turns-into-another timeline; like so many denizens of adultescence, they’re already living the time loop before it even starts. Which sets up the inevitable question: What are they going to learn inside the time loop to make them want to shed their quarter-life-crisis stereotypes and embrace the full adulthood that is linear time’s reward?
The answer is, something about love, but maybe not quite enough to hold the movie together till the end. Samberg and Milioti are well matched — they’re both charismatic actors with odd, cartoonish versions of good looks, and the movie gives them a lot of entertainingly profane banter in the stretches where they try to live, or learn to live, in a world where the only stakes involve their own relationship. They have able support from familiar faces such as J. K. Simmons (as another luckless loop-dweller) and Peter Gallagher (as the father of the bride). And the conceit of having them share the time loop enables them to move back and forth between the repetitions of the wedding and a series of side adventures in the desert; they can make the most of a consequence-free existence in a way that the solo time-looper cannot.
What they don’t have is an effective third act. The movie reveals something we didn’t know about Sarah at about the two-thirds mark, but it doesn’t have a matching revelation for Nyles: I waited in vain for something interesting about his pre-loop past to be revealed. And their character development thereafter doesn’t follow from the problems they were introduced as having. Nyles spends most of the movie as a posturing cynic, but then the problem in the last act is suddenly that he’s too codependent, while Sarah’s reinvention doesn’t alter her character much at all.
My guess is that the shadow of Groundhog Day loomed, like Punxsutawney Phil’s on a winter morning, over the construction of the ending. The Palm Springs filmmakers didn’t want something as tidy and classical as the Murray-Ramis wrap-up, and so they talked themselves into something that feels unfinished, like a rough draft. Which doesn’t detract from the movie’s entertainments — but I wouldn’t mind if they had to wake up, one more time, and do it all again.
This article appears as “Groundhog Day Redux” in the August 10, 2020, print edition of National Review.
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