If you watch enough TV and movies, the tricks writers rely on become easy to spot. There’s that moment in a horror film where a character could turn back to safety, but doesn’t. She walks into the spooky mansion, or picks up the killer’s phone call, and the audience’s arms collectively goosebump. Rom-coms use the meet-cute (awww), sports stories have the big game (whoo!), disaster flicks introduce us to that one guy who is right, but ignored until it’s too late. (If only they’d listen!) This isn’t a knock on narrative conventions or tropes or working within established formats. After all, a story needs a shape. This is all just to say that time-loop narratives tend to follow certain conventions to move their stories forward. For example, they usually kick into gear when the main character realizes that, oh shit, yep—they’re stuck in time!
That moment arrives quickly in Palm Springs, Hulu’s new film from the team at Lonely Island. (Warning: Spoilers from the film below.) Within the first 20 minutes, Andy Samberg’s leading man Nyles casually and succinctly lays out the film’s sci-fi gimmick. “It’s one of those infinite time-loop situations you might have heard about,” he explains to Cristin Milioti’s Sarah, who is wild-eyed and pissed off after realizing she’s stuck living the same day—her sister’s wedding day—on repeat. The slacker maid of honor, Sarah gritted her teeth through the ceremony the first time around, and she wants out of the loop ASAP. Nyles has been stuck in the cycle for a longer period of time, though, and he no longer minds his circumstances. He’s settled in. And now that Sarah’s with him, he’s not too eager to leave.
By the time we meet him, Nyles is a grinning nihilist in a Hawaiian shirt, emotionally numb after being trapped in his loop for thousands of spins already. (The origin story: He stumbled away from the wedding reception and into a mysterious cave in the desert that, oops, doubles as a portal into an eternally resetting present. It’s all very arbitrary.) He has memorized dance moves, slept with all of the willing attractive guests, gamed out his options and settled on eternal relaxation. He’s perpetually cracking a beer, drifting peacefully within his recursive existence, a purgatorial Parrot Head so far gone into his eternal present that he has no backstory, because he can’t remember his past.
Nyles never actually name-checks the ’90s comedy classic Groundhog Day in his explanation to Sarah, but his nonchalant exposition of the whole time-loop situation winks at how familiar audiences will be with the trope, which has been a mainstay in film and television since Bill Murray played Phil, a snotty weatherman trapped in a looping February day. That movie so thoroughly infiltrated mainstream culture, its title is still used as shorthand for any monotonous experience. (Just Google “Covid-19 + Groundhog Day.” You’ll see.) Last year, the dexterous Netflix show Russian Doll proved the concept could work in a serialized form, with Natasha Lyonne’s Nadia and Charlie Barnett’s Alan on a quest to escape their constantly rebooting existence. Like them, Milioti’s Sarah searches desperately for a way out of her loop. Nyles shrugs at her attempts to untangle the cosmic knot containing them forever poolside in the Coachella Valley. They bicker. They banter. And, as expected from an improbably attractive duo bound together by a metaphysical trick, they bone.
After the pair spend an indeterminate amount of time flirting and frolicking across inland southern California, they get in their first real fight. A betrayal is confessed, and Sarah decides to find a way out of the loop. She ditches Nyles—she wants to go. He just wants her to come back. The gulf between their ultimate goals forms the film’s final conflict. This is a rom-com, not a tragedy, so it is not surprising when Nyles decides to leap back into the real world with Sarah.
What is surprising: I felt weirdly melancholy about this objectively happy ending. Palm Springs was intended for a theatrical release, not a straight-to-streaming one, and under any other circumstances, it’d be the perfect movie for a hot afternoon. But with theaters closed due to Covid-19, it went to Hulu, where people can watch it while stuck in their own quarantine time loops. With shelter-in-place orders warping so many peoples’ perceptions of time this spring and summer, watching a movie about people learning to enjoy the present and not stress about the future feels like receiving some pretty sage advice. Couldn’t Sarah and Nyles have simply stayed in their safe and immortality-conferring never-ending day?
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In Groundhog Day, Phil’s time-stuck existence is lonely and miserable. He falls in love, but his romantic interest is outside of his loop, and even when he does win her over, he knows it will only last until he wakes up again. (And, well—he’s in a mediocre hotel in small-town Pennsylvania in wintertime.) In Russian Doll, Nadia and Alan have each other for company, but the universe degrades each time they reboot. Their pets disappear, flowers die, and their bodies begin to betray them. If they can’t find their way out, it means annihilation. In Palm Springs, though, they have a cushy setup. The sexy layabouts have access to not one but two in-ground pools, and one of them’s in an empty mansion at their disposal. They’ve got an open bar, no responsibilities, and, crucially, one another. Yes, they both wake up each morning with people they can’t stand and a wedding to ditch, but they have no shortage of options for places to hide and chill, from a friendly dive bar to the majestic scenery of Joshua Tree. They even joyride an airplane!
When Sarah gets frustrated by the lack of stakes in their perpetual-wedding-weekend life, Nyles—wisely, I think—argues that the true stakes lie in accepting powerlessness and impermanence. “The only way to really live in this is to embrace the fact that nothing matters,” Nyles says. “Well, then, what’s the point of living?” she shoots back.
“We kind of have no choice but to live,” he replies. “So I think your best bet is just to learn how to suffer existence.”
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In its back half, Palm Springs goes on to paint Nyles’ acceptance of his circumstances as a sign that he is stunted, more playboy than Zen monk, and that he needs to mature. But, honestly? “Learn how to suffer existence” is good advice!
Can you blame me for wondering, for a good stretch of the movie, if Sarah and Nyles might also actually just stay in their loop? (Since their memories are preserved even though their days reset, they would’ve still been able to deepen their relationship and live within the confines of the looping universe, after all—it might’ve been like Black Mirror’s “San Junipero” episode, where the lovebird characters find happiness in a universe which is artificial and untethered from reality but within which they can achieve a meaningful relationship.) At its halfway mark, it seemed possible Palm Springs was going to turn out to be a sort of vaguely existentialist treatise on the beauty of focusing solely on living in the now.
Maybe the filmmakers agree with me, at least a little. The last thing that happens after Sarah and Nyles finally make it back to their original timeline? They get kicked out of the pool. Vacation’s over. Are they sure what comes next will be better?
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