As a movie featuring a time loop, it’s inevitable that every review of Palm Springs, which released on Hulu today after premiering at Sundance back in January, will compare it to Groundhog Day— avid readers of film criticism might feel like they’ve slipped into a time loop themselves, or at least an echo chamber. Despite knowing this, I feel compelled to do the same here, in part because the film seems to invite that comparison. Director Max Barbakow and screenwriter Andy Siara are aware that audiences “might’ve heard of” this narrative conceit, and they use a kind of storytelling shorthand to avoid boring us with things we already know. They also, to our collective delight, play with the formula, and teasing out the consequences of their tinkering is the perhaps the most interesting way to talk about their work.
Palm Springs begins on November 9th, 2019, the day that Tala (Camila Mendes) and Abe (Tyler Hoechlin) are to be married. At the reception, Nyles (Andy Samberg), the plus-one of a bridesmaid, charms Sarah (Cristin Milioti), the bride’s sister and underprepared maid of honor, by saving her from potential embarrassment. They find a secluded spot in the desert to hook up, only to find themselves interrupted when an unknown man shoots Nyles with an arrow. Wounded but unfazed, he crawls into a glowing-cave with the confused Sarah close behind him, despite his insisting she not follow. When she wakes up on November 9th again, a nonplussed Nyles casually explains that she’s now stuck repeating that day forever, as he already had been for quite some time.
Rather than applying the Groundhog Day concept to a new genre, like the excellent Edge of Tomorrow did for sci-fi/action, Barbakow chooses to stay in the realm of romantic comedy, and Palm Springs is a decidedly fun entrant into that canon. Samberg and Milioti make the central couple compelling and Siara’s script does well to highlight their characters, sidelining the supporting cast in a way that feels right for the story without sacrificing their comedic value. Rightfully confident in the viewer’s ability to follow the action, things move along at a brisk pace, avoiding the pitfall of lingering too long on any one gag. The movie might lean more towards the ‘com’ side of things, but the romance is not lacking, and trying to mine for deeper emotion might have sacrificed its buoyant tone.
It also seems to me that, thematically, the filmmakers are most interested in exploring what including a time-loop actually means for a rom-com. The central lessons of Groundhog Day remain true: without time there is no consequence, and without consequence there is no meaning. The only things that matter are things that can change, and because Bill Murray’s protagonist is the only one who experiences the repetition, the film’s focus becomes his personal growth. But when two people repeat the same day together, their relationship is what grows— and isn’t that, Palm Springs seems to say, what the point of a romantic comedy should be? I don’t think Barbakow reaches quite the same heights as his inspiration (nor was that his aim), but as a companion piece, it’s quite engaging.