Some of the best experiences come from the most surprising places. I wasn’t expecting much from Palm Springs, the new movie starring Adam Samberg, which is currently streaming on Hulu. Even though I had heard great things about it, I still had managed to hear nothing specific. I didn’t know the director, didn’t know anything about the plot, hadn’t seen a trailer, nothing. I haven’t decided yet if it was this tabula rasa effect or the possibility that the movie is just really that good (probably a combination of the two), but it made me the happiest I’ve been in months. It’s been so hard to find good in the world lately, but this film reminded me of something that used to make me happy: a good movie.
Palm Springs is a low-key and unassuming comic gem and the best movie I’ve seen so far this year. Coming off Eurovision, a comedy that shot for the moon in terms of scope and production values, it was so refreshing to experience a movie that relies simply on concept, writing and performance. Palm Springs is simple but not simplistic, unassuming but definitely not shallow and grounded but not basic. It is the perfect quarantine tonic: a movie about loneliness that embraces every element of the human condition with humor and heart.
It’s not what you would expect from the guys who famously brought you the Saturday Night Live digital shorts “Dick in a Box” and “Motherlover,” but Palm Springs is co-produced by the comedy threesome known as The Lonely Island, which is made up of Samberg and two of his childhood friends, Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer. While the group is mainly known for writing and performing songs (they collaborated on the Oscar-nominated song “Everything Is Awesome” from The Lego Movie), their first foray into motion picture writing, directing and producing came in 2014 with Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, which was a modest commercial and critical success. But Palm Springs takes a much more sophisticated tone than we are used to seeing from the group, which is probably why they left the writing and directing to someone else this time. The formula works, as the light and somewhat sophomoric comedic influence of Samberg, Taccone and Schaffer is definitely felt, but offset by the deeper, more meaningful and philosophical angle brought to the movie by director Max Barbakow and writer Andy Siara, both making their feature film debut.
Siara’s screenplay deserves particular attention and acclaim, as the simple and some say derivative plot-line of a guy forced to re-live the same day over and over again finds new and refreshing twists in Siara’s insightful, exceedingly clever and delightful script. I am making every effort to avoid revealing anything at all about the story, because the less you know, the more the delightful surprises this movie has in store for you will land as they were intended.
But what I will say is Palm Springs is a romantic comedy set in Palm Springs, California, on the day of a wedding. The bride’s sister, Sarah, played by Cristin Milioti, meets Nyles, played by Samberg, the boyfriend of one of the maids of honor, and learns that Nyles is caught in an endless time loop. The rest of the movie is a mind-bending confection that merges humor, romance, philosophy and fantasy into an existentialist examination of individual responsibility. Living somewhere between Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Groundhog Day, Palm Springs has an ethos that fundamentally taps into your soul, craving you to challenge the way you look at the world.
But, mostly, it is absolutely hilarious.
Samberg is the best he’s ever been and Milioti plays perfectly off him as the pair caught up in this perpetual single day loop. While Samberg may not be the world’s best actor, he doesn’t need much range to be wholly effective here. Showing us a more calm and grounded character than we’ve seen from him in the past, he is charming and warm, but also believable as a guy whose world has literally disappeared. Milioti is a bit better at playing the anxiety, but her comic timing is just as on fire as Samberg’s, making me wonder where she’s been our whole lives. They are joined by an ensemble of actors who play every note perfectly, especially the always-fantastic J.K. Simmons.
But what I loved the most about Palm Springs is it can be whatever you want or need it to be. For those looking for a silly and somewhat sappy romantic comedy, it’s here. If you want something a bit deeper, you can embrace the themes of destiny, fate and control that are grounded in its Carpe Diem worldview. And, for those of us who like to question everything, including if anything even matters, there is more than enough of a mind-f*ck nihilistic element that will satisfy even the darkest of souls.
Bottom line is this: Palm Springs brings just enough silly, just enough serious and just enough sentimental to make it exceedingly worth your time (especially at a brisk 90-minute run time) in these dark days. My advice is to just watch it, give into it and let it find its way into your heart and brain. Besides, any movie that can find a way to fit in Kate Bush’s “Cloudbusting” is aces in my book.