In the Time-Loop Comedy ‘Palm Springs,’ the Characters Are Trapped With Themselves — Just Like the Rest of Us

Pandemic or no pandemic, this winning Andy Samberg film plays with its ‘Groundhog Day’ premise to explore how to hold onto your relationships (and your sanity) when time has no meaning

Groundhog Day is one of the most beloved comedies of the last 30 years, equally funny, romantic and philosophical. Built around a clever concept — caustic weatherman discovers he’s forced to relive the same day over and over again — the movie touched a nerve because it spoke to something everyone feels: Life sure can be monotonous. But whether it’s Groundhog Day or the recent Netflix series that explored a similar idea, Russian Doll, there’s also a silver lining attached, which is that if we figure out why we’re stuck in that endless loop, maybe we can get out of it. In other words, the monotony is partly a symptom of something wrong within us: Once we become better people or change our ways, we’ll be free.

The new romantic comedy Palm Springs is the latest variation on the Groundhog Day formula, but one of the things I most appreciated about the film is that, pretty early on, it’s clear that its characters aren’t trapped in some sort of existential riddle they’ve got to solve. The story of two strangers who fall in love while constantly repeating the exact same day, Palm Springs in some ways is bleaker but also more realistic than that Bill Murray classic. Maybe there’s no trick to escaping the mundanity — maybe we just have to get used to being trapped.

Andy Samberg plays Nyles, a blasé dude who wakes up in Palm Springs to attend a wedding taking place later that day. But whether it’s having sex with his superficial girlfriend Misty (Meredith Hagner) or lounging in the pool drinking a beer, nothing seems to give him much pleasure. He just seems like a lot of disillusioned men: Nothing much matters to the guy. But we’ll quickly learn why he’s unenthused about this wedding and everything else. 

That night, Nyles catches the eye of one of the bridesmaids, Sarah (Cristin Milioti), who he hooks up with. (Nyles knows Misty is hooking up with someone, too, so it’s hardly like he’s being unfaithful.) But when Sarah makes the mistake of following him into a strange cave nearby the wedding site, she finds him walking toward an eerie light. Suddenly, she wakes up back in her hotel, realizing she’s started that same day over — and that no one else is aware. Well, one person is: Nyles, who didn’t intend for her to get thrown into the same time warp that he’s been in. 

He can’t explain to Sarah why it happened or how to get out of it, but he’s been reliving that day for a really long time — and now she will, too. Sarah can’t believe it and spends the next several “days” trying to outsmart the loop. (She even drives all the way home to Austin, figuring that being in a different location will break the spell.) But no matter what she does, she always wakes up in that Palm Springs hotel room.  

Their situation seems hopeless, which is entirely the point. Palm Springs (which premieres on Hulu on Friday) isn’t about them solving the riddle as much as it is about them accepting their fate. Understandably, Sarah is freaked out, but Nyles insists that it’s actually not so bad once you get used to it. There can be something fun about being in on a little secret that no one else knows. Plus, because they get along so well, Nyles and Sarah start exploring the area around the wedding, treating their loop almost like an indefinite vacation. Maybe they’ll go camping today. Maybe they’ll get tattoos. Or maybe they’ll just mess with all the wedding guests. When there are no consequences — even if they die in a car crash, they’ll reboot to the start of that day — you can do whatever you want.

Making his feature debut, director Max Barbakow has fashioned a most unusual meet-cute that develops into a peculiar rom-com, all of which has funny echoes with our everyday lives. As Nyles and Sarah spend more time with one another, they feel a connection, but there’s apprehension about becoming a couple. They really don’t want to ruin their friendship — after all, if their romance implodes, they’ll be stuck in this loop with someone they’d actively want to avoid. (Ever dated a co-worker and it went badly? Nyles and Sarah risk facing a scenario that’s infinitely worse.) Undaunted, they give a relationship a try, discovering that a cliché a lot of us say to our partners is literally true for them: There’s no one else in the world they’d rather be stuck with than each other.

Not that everything in this loop is ideal. There’s one other person who’s also trapped inside this “day” — a mysterious man named Roy (J. K. Simmons) — occasionally making Nyles’ life miserable. And complications will arise for Nyles and Sarah, who learn that, like all long-term relationships, it’s really hard to keep that early spark going. (At least Palm Springs’ married couple have the “till death do us part” loophole: Nyles and Sarah can’t die and can’t leave the loop they’re in.) Goofy but thoughtful, Palm Springs has a light touch that never calls attention to the fact that the movie’s actually pretty profound about how love can put you on a surreal wavelength where time has no meaning and every day bleeds into the next. When a relationship is going great, that’s a wonderful feeling — when it’s not, you may feel like you’re in hell.

Samberg and Milioti are both just right in a movie that only runs about 90 minutes. (Despite its deeper philosophical implications, Palm Springs is mostly breezy and slight, wisely not overstaying its welcome.) There will come a point later in the film where one of the characters may have figured out how to escape this time trap, but it has nothing to do with growing or changing or learning some important life lesson. In this regard, Palm Springs is refreshingly pragmatic about how human beings operate. Sure, we can mature and evolve — maybe even become a better person for someone we love — but we’re fundamentally stuck with ourselves. If we’re hoping that we’ll be able to magically flip some switch and fix all our personality flaws — and that, somehow, that will improve our lot in life — we’re bound to be disappointed. 

That might sound depressing, but it’s also oddly reassuring. Especially in the midst of a pandemic in which we’re all (hopefully) social distancing, I imagine this movie will resonate even deeper with viewers, who may strongly relate to the characters’ sense of being trapped. But like us, they come to realize there’s no easy “escape” — the best we can do is try to adjust our thinking and make the best of a strange circumstance. 

The irony of Palm Springs is that Barbakow and his cast presumably saw their film as a metaphor for our daily grind. Little did they know that a movie about a world that’s a perpetual purgatory would arrive just in time for our reality to feel eerily similar.