Day Trippers

A quantum loop complicates things in the surprising romantic comedy Palm Springs

Perhaps our ongoing national catastrophe, and all the exhaustion and despair it entails, have weakened my critical faculties, but I must say I was unexpectedly pleased by Palm Springs, a new Hulu streamer that can only be described as low investment, high reward and delightfully diverting all around.

Like Groundhog Day, the film pivots on the quantum weirdness of a man trapped in a time loop, cursed to live the same day over and over, perhaps forever. In Palm Springs, that man is Nyles (Andy Samberg), a slacker nihilist whose approach to this eternal returning is a kind of bored permanent vacation. Like, whatever, dude, might as well have a beer and kick back, maybe try to get laid.

The day in question is a wedding in the desert, where Nyles is mysteriously hunted with bow and arrow by Roy (the always excellent J.K. Simmons), who is also trapped in this day for reasons I won’t reveal here. Early in the film, Roy tracks Nyles to a cave, where he crawls in and, presto, wakes up once more in today.

Unfortunately, and against Nyles warnings, the bride’s sister Sarah (Cristin Milioti) follows him into the cave. In one of this film’s several delicious twists, we don’t know how many times Nyles has seduced Sarah during his infinite passages through “today”; all we know is that this time he’s fucked it up, and they’re both stuck.

As with the time-flip conceit in Groundhog Day, the possibilities for romantic comedy in Palm Springs are rich, though writer Andy Siara and director Max Barbakow take them in a different, though no less fruitful, direction here, playing on the idea of commitment rather than moral reckoning. Whereas Bill Murray had to become a decent human being to escape the loop, Nyles and Sarah are forced to negotiate their relationship through an endless and unchanging present.

Palm Springs is funny, often riotously so, but more importantly it is just the right kind of smart: It is neither too clever with its existential truths nor too fluffy to override its own possibilities, finding instead just the right balance between romance and comedy, punch and punchline. It is incredibly sweet, the more so because it is unafraid of a little sourness, nor the high-low of carnal slapstick.

As good as the writing might be, Palm Springs is ultimately carried by its two leads, whose chemistry is more a relational bonhomie than pure passionate spark, as befits the situation. Samberg, who altogether sheds his dorky SNL vibe, is incredibly charming and restrained, and he earns every emotion and every joke with cool ease.

Milioti, likewise, is fantastic. She’s like a warmer, more empathetic Aubrey Plaza, not altogether convinced of world-weary cynicism that wants to possess her. Plaza’s comic depths vibrate in furious quirks that barely break the surface; Milioti’s comedy, on the other hand, draws from the surface inward, pulling us toward an ache that wants to communicate itself. 

Palm Springs is a slight film, a sleeper with respectably moderate ambitions that sneaks up on you with a little bit of naughty and a lot of nice until it insinuates its way into your heart. It’s a great piece of escapism, and a lovely loop of time well worth traveling.