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July 21, 2020

Review: Hulu's 'Palm Springs' is a time loop worth getting stuck in

The new comedy from The Lonely Island stars Andy Samberg and Cherry Hill native Cristin Milioti.

Movies Hulu
Palm-Springs-trailer_072120_HULU Courtesy of Hulu/For PhillyVoice

Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti in Hulu's new movie "Palm Springs."

There's something to be said about movies that don't waste any time throwing the viewer right into the plot, often at the expense of the viewers' preconceived notions of what they're about to watch, disorienting them and making them second guess whatever they thought the plot was going to be. And there's something even more to be said about movies that avoid the pitfall of stringing the audience along without letting them in on the secret. 

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And that's certainly the case with Palm Springs, the new Lonely Island movie now streaming on Hulu and starring Andy Samberg ("Brooklyn Nine-Nine") and Cherry Hill native Cristin Milioti ("How I Met Your Mother"). 

Typically, the above-described premise is left to longer science fiction or fantasy projects, like Edge of Tomorrow or Source Code, not 90-minute comedies that center around a wedding in Palm Springs, but that's exactly what makes this movie work so well. From start to finish, Palm Springs is a genre-bending, 90-minute joyride that is full of (often dark) laughs, unsuspecting warmth, a great soundtrack, and plenty of surprises to keep the audience engaged. 

[WARNING: This post contains moderate plot spoilers.]

What starts as a typical day at a destination wedding quickly starts to show cracks as the viewer becomes aware that not everything is as it seems, and within the first 15 minutes of the movie, it becomes obvious that Nyles (Samberg) is stuck in a time loop, living the same day over and over again like Phil Connors (Bill Murray) in Groundhog Day

I mean, how else would he be able to deliver a sequence like this?

While taking on a premise that is so closely tied to one iconic movie can be a dangerous game, writer Andy Siara was able to keep it fresh by adding some new wrinkles that we haven't seen before from other infinite time-loop movies.

For starters, Nyles, who is tagging along at the wedding with girlfriend and bridesmaid Misty (Meredith Hagner), isn't the only one stuck in the time loop and has the ability to bring others in with him. That's essentially the jumping-off point for the movie, as sister-of-the-bride Sarah (Milioti), after a post-wedding romp with new friend Nyles was cut short, sees Nyles disappear into the mysterious cave that first put him into the loop. Despite his warnings, Sarah follows him and, the next thing she knows, is waking up in bed at the beginning of the very same day she just lived.

Scared and unsure of what is happening, she seeks out Nyles in an attempt to get answers, and the two begin a relationship as the nihilistic Nyles (that can't be a coincidence right?) tries to win her over to his side of the "nothing matters anymore" debate. 

"So this [gestures broadly] is today. Today is yesterday. And tomorrow is also today," Nyles explains. "It's one of those infinite time-loop situations you might have heard about."

There are definitely some similarities between Sarah's journey and that of Phil Connors, as she first is furious over having to live the same day over and over. Eventually, she gives in and starts enjoying the fact that her decisions have no consequences — no matter what, whether they die or simply fall asleep, both Sarah and Nyles immediately wake up and begin the wedding day all over again. After a while, however, she starts to realize that a meaningless existence is, well, meaningless, and like Connors, begins doing anything and everything she can to find a way out. 

Nyles, meanwhile, couldn't care less.

"I don't know what it is," Nyles tells Sarah. "It could be life. It could be death. It might be a dream. I might be imagining you. You might be imagining me. It could be purgatory, or a glitch in the simulation that we're both in. I don't know. So, I decided a while ago to sort of give up and stop trying to make sense of things altogether, because, the only way to live in this is to embrace the fact that nothing matters."

Sarah responds by asking, "Well then what's the point of living?"

"Well, we kind of have no choice but to live," he explains. "So I think your best bet is just to learn how to suffer existence."

And that's one of the other things that separates Palm Springs from Groundhog Day. By the time we meet Nyles, he's already lived this day countless times. It's never made clear exactly how many times he's seen Sarah's sister get married, but it's been long enough that he says he actually forgets about his life before getting stuck in time. He knows the system. How it works. What he can do to take advantage of it — and the people unaware of his condition. The only thing he doesn't know is how to get out. And throughout the movie, it becomes increasingly clear that he has absolutely no intention of leaving this world that he's comfortable in and returning to a world of uncertainty and, more importantly, consequence. 

While not even death has consequences in this world, there is one thing that is very real: pain. And that's where the star of the movie, J.K. Simmons, comes in. 

One of the first things that clues viewers into the fact that things aren't as they seem comes after the first night at the wedding before Sarah follows Nyles into the cave. Just as the two are about to get romantic on a rock formation in the desert, Nyles is struck in the shoulder by an arrow and takes off running into the night as Roy (Simmons) chases after him with a bow. 

See, Sarah isn't the first person Nyles has led into the time-loop. And if you think Sarah is pissed about her current predicament, that's nothing compared to Roy, who was a guest at the wedding and partied with Nyles during his "early days" in the loop while he "was still feeling things out." After a drug-filled night, Nyles shows Roy the cave and pulls him into the loop. Now, every so often, Roy drives out to Palm Springs (he lives in Irvine, which prevents him from chasing Nyles every night) and tries to capture and torture his newfound enemy. 

Perhaps that's the biggest shortcoming of this movie: not enough J.K. Simmons hunting Andy Samberg while calling him a "sh*tbird."

Once this seemingly complicated but actually very simple premise is laid out, we begin getting deeper into what makes these two characters tick — and why Sarah is so dead set on never waking up in Palm Springs again. It follows a more traditional story arc, with the two fast friends suddenly becoming sick of one another, going their separate ways, and leaving viewers to hope that they reunite before time runs out. 

Well, maybe not time in this case. They have plenty of that.

Written by Siara, directed by Max Barbakow and produced by The Lonely Island, Palm Springs manages to provide a fresh take on a familiar plot and provides plenty of laughs along the way. And while it may appear on the surface to be a movie about living the same day over and over again — and in some ways it is — it's actually a deeper look at the monotony of our own lives and what we're willing to do to break out of the comfort of our own loops.

It may be a premise that's been repeated constantly throughout the years, but it's different enough and entertaining enough that it's most certainly worth your time.


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