Monday July 13, 2020
Movie Review: Palm Springs (2020)
Could infinite time loops be their own genre? The form would be more constrained than most, of course, but maybe that would spur imaginations. It could be the villanelle of movie genres, with Harold Ramis as its Dylan Thomas.
They certainly feel appropriate to the Covid era. Who doesn't feel trapped these days? Who doesn't wake up and think: Oh right. This again. Fuuuck.
Unlike “Groundhog Day,” which begins with the first day Bill Murray gets stuck in the time loop, “Palm Springs” gives us Nyles (Andy Samberg) already stuck in it for who knows how long.
We don’t know that initially. We see him and his girlfriend, the vapid Misty (Meredith Hagner, fantastic), staying at a motel on the day of the wedding of their friends, Tala and Abe (Camila Mendes, Veronica of “Riverdale” and Tyler Hoechlin, Superman of the DC TV universe). He has sad morning sex with Misty, swims and drinks beer in the motel pool, shows up (in Hawaiian shirt and swimsuit) late to the wedding reception, where he rescues the bride’s sister, Sarah (Cristin Milioti), from having to give a speech by giving his own: a semi-profound talk about how we’re all born lost, and love and marriage is when we’re found. He’s glib, like an “Animal House” fratboy, but surprisingly meaningful, like an old soul. Like someone who’s lived countless lifetimes.
Saving Sarah from fumbling her speech is part of a plot to sleep with Sarah. It almost works. At first she’s like “What about your girlfriend, dude?” and we cut to the two of them crouched outside a motel room where another wedding guest is going down on Misty. Then it’s Nyles and Sarah in the desert, making out; then out of nowhere Nyles is shot by an arrow from a paramilitary dude named Roy (J.K. Simmons). Chased, Nyles crawls into a cave that pulses red like a beating heart. Sarah follows him in to see if he's OK. He yells at her to leave. She doesn’t.
Then it’s the next day. Or the same day. “Palm Springs” doesn’t begin with his first time-loop day but hers. The cave—which opens up during an afternoon earthquake—is where it happens.
It’s an interesting wrinkle to the formula: What happens when you have someone to share that same day with? Who won’t re-set like the rest of the world? How much better does it make it?
Not necessarily better. Turns out Roy is another wedding guest with whom Nyles once got high in the desert; and when Roy said he’d love to live out there forever, a stoned Nyles introduced him to the cave. He wasn’t happy. Every so often, he chases down and tortures Nyles.
Sarah isn't happy, either. She wants out, and immediately latches on to the “Groundhog Day” lesson: It’s karma, and to break free they need to be better people, and she needs to do a selfless act. Doesn’t work. She tries to kill herself. Ditto. Eventually she calms down and the two act like high school kids playing hooky. They goof around, waste time, prank the other guests. They go to a shooting range, steal a plane and crash it, go to a dive bar and synchronize dance. They begin to enjoy themselves. They wake up with smiles on their faces. Every day doesn’t matter but they have each other.
But then the reveals. He admits that during his solo infinite loop, they had sex maybe a thousand times. She reveals—or he finds out—that the bed she wakes up in every morning is not hers but the groom’s, her sister's betrothed, and she’s wracked with guilt. Eventually, she simply disappears every morning, leaving Nyles bereft. But she's going to the local diner to study quantum physics. To get the fuck out of Dodge. Thankfully, she's a quick study. She realizes that if they blow themselves up in the cave at the exact right moment…
I’ll cut to the chase: It works.
The movie was made for Hulu by writer Andy Siara (“Lodge 49,” shorts) and director Max Barbakow (shorts), and it's not bad. I laughed throughout. I think I laughed the hardest at that chaotic scene when the beautiful Tala falls on her face and breaks her two front teeth before the wedding. Sandberg’s got the Know-It-All’s smirk down; Milioti is smarter but not as funny. Hagner as Misty is a stand-out. Simmons is becoming our weathered wise man: Sam Elliott with anger issues.
Time-loop movies always make me wonder what I’d do in that situation. I think, initially, I'd assume I was in purgatory and paying for my moral failings. But since every day was without consequences, there would be that urge to have more moral failings. I might also do all the stuff I don’t have time to do now: become fluent in Chinese and French; research the books I want to write. Maybe I’d finally read “Ulysses” or “Remembrance" or the Bible. Would I travel? Get half- or quarter-days in Paris or Shanghai or Kauai? Eventually, I assume, I would go mad. Or does that just mean you wake up sane again?
Here, since you could bring others into the time loop with you, I was wondering if they would inundate the cave with guests—flood the zone, as it were—and hope they broke free. Or: rather than study quantum physics—good luck with that—how about bringing a quantum physicist through the cave with you? So you’d have him on your side. What would the world be like if you had a thousand or a million people restarting on the same day but retaining their memories? When would it begin to feel like you were eternal? When would it feel less like hell and more like heaven?
For all the laughs, the ending of “Palm Springs” disappointed me. He was in the loop for, what, 10 years? Twenty? So what would you do the glorious day you finally broke free? Guess what they do? The same shit they were doing in the loop: lounging in a nearby pool and drinking beer. Huge disappointment.
It does lead to a joke about the family that owns the pool. He says: “I guess they return on November 10.” Meaning the time-loop day was November 9. Which also happens to be the day after Donald Trump was elected president. What a fucking day to be stuck in. Here’s to breaking free of all that.