A person reliving the same day over and over again in an endless purgatorial cycle doesn’t exactly sound like cinematic catnip but, rather fittingly, it’s been repeated enough times to make something of a cottage industry. According to the confusingly actually existent Wikipedia page, a ‘list of films featuring time loops’, a full 46 directors have taken a stab at this chronological conceit (which doesn’t even count tv shows like Russian Doll). As a result, unless the director has a fresh take on the concept, the audience’s response can be less open-mouthed wonder than a question familiar to any temporally becalmed protagonist: haven’t we done this before? Whilst Bill Murray’s, appropriately, eternal 1993 effort Groundhog Day wasn’t the first time-loop film (that particular honour goes to Urusei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer – Your guess is as good as mine), it is the definitive one. For better or worse any piece of media involving an endlessly repeating day will forever be in the shadow of ‘Punxatawny Phil’, and Palm Springs is no exception. Even so, it manages to establish a quirky, fun twist on the formula and to sneak in a sweet (if deranged) rom-com, using its high concept shenanigans like a Trojan horse.
Instead of wasting time on set up, Palm Springs starts in media res with our temporal Sisyphus, Nyles (Andy Samberg), having already spent decades living out the same day on repeat. The day in question is November 9th, at a destination wedding in balmy Palm Springs. Nyles is the plus one boyfriend of one of the bridesmaids (Search Party’s Meredith Hagner, hilariously self-centred) and as a result is a complete stranger to most of the wedding invitees, though of course by this point he knows them better than they know themselves. Having burned out on the existential nightmare of his predicament, Nyles simply drifts through the day in as relaxed a fashion as possible, namely by heavy day drinking with the assuredness of knowing he’s never going to see the hangover, and using his situational omniscience for entertainment. Unlike most time loop stories the cause of the loop is well known to him: at mid-afternoon a small earthquake reveals a cave coruscating with unearthly radiance. Anyone who enters the cave is pulled forever into an endless loop of November 9th, so that whenever you fall asleep (or die) it snatches you back to the moment and location at which you originally woke up on that day.
Obviously, the combination of decades’ worth of one-way familiarity and the party atmosphere of a wedding mean that seduction isn’t the biggest challenge in Nyles’s purgatorial existence, but whilst hooking up with sister of the bride Sarah (How I Met Your Mother’s Cristin Milioti), an unexpected accident leads to her getting caught in the loop with him. By subverting the formula through having both romantic leads stuck in time, Palm Springs is able to have some serious fun. The combination of Nyles’s decades-honed beatific nihilism with Sarah’s new-to-the-loop panic and desperation has the makings of a bizarre buddy comedy. Nyles is something between a fellow prisoner and an alternative life coach. He rattles off anecdotes about keeping himself awake with crystal meth in order to fly to Equatorial Guinea to escape the range of the loop (“it was a real waste of time”), and does his best to guide Sarah by instructing her in the art of living like there is literally no tomorrow. Andy Samberg has never truly broken through as a leading man since in previous roles he’s come across as something of a manchild. Here he allows reservoirs of well-earned existential cynicism to sharpen his natural amiability into something a little darker.
The pair use their no-stakes existence to fuel an absurdist romance full of costume changes and dares that frequently end in low-stakes death; at one-point Nyles even asks to be killed to avoid being stuck in a traffic jam for two hours. Whilst life in the loop is a Sisyphean punishment without the Boulder, it’s also a very cosy existence; a concept which Palm Springs starts intriguingly subverting as it goes along. With no responsibilities and no consequences wouldn’t returning to linear time actually be a shock to the system, possibly even frightening? As a film Palm Springs tends to shoot for funny rather than existentially terrifying, but world events have rather superseded the writer’s intentions.
With Palm Springs first debut at the pre-COVID Sundance Festival, it made headlines for inspiring a surprisingly fierce bidding war, getting snapped up for distribution for an alleged $22m, a record sale for the Festival. For obvious reasons that investment might not have paid off quite how the studio would have liked it to, thanks to the total absence of theatrical box office. However, the long lacuna of lockdown has had the unexpected quality of making Palm Springs feel bizarrely current and borderline relatable. Who amongst us hasn’t had periods of feeling unstuck from time over the last year, repeating what feels like the same day over and over again (and not even a day as exciting as a destination wedding)? As we begin to emerge, blinking molelike, into what will hopefully be a post-lockdown world, behind the joys of reopening pubs and galleries there is a notable touch of panic. For many people living their own endless loop for the past year, the thought of suddenly having to face reality can be as frightening as it is for Nyles and Sarah. As this funny little film shows, the only way to cope is one day at a time.