' ' Cinema Romantico: Palm Springs

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Palm Springs

As “Palm Springs” begins, Nyles (Andy Samberg) is attending a wedding in the eponymous California desert community as a guest of his girlfriend Misty (Meredith Hagner). He’s not into it, the relationship or the wedding. He shows up at the afterparty wearing a Hawaiian shirt and shorts, chugging beers, evincing a prominent devil-may-care countenance, and when he grabs hold of the microphone during the toasts, it looks like there is going to be real trouble. There isn’t. His speech is gracious, inspiring, and informed; it moves the whole suspicious audience. “That was unexpected,” I thought. Ha! Oh, just you wait. Because if for one blessed moment you merely think appearances deceive, that the casually bedecked are just as capable of heartwarming speeches as the formally dressed, it turns out Nyles is simply stuck in a time loop, has been for a long, long time, and has been reliving this day, November 9th, over and over again, “Groundhog Day” style. And I thought: we’ve reached a strange point in modern movies. We’ve reached a point where a basic character reversal is more shocking than being stuck in a time loop; high concepts have ruined me. 

In fairness, that patented goofy air of Samberg’s, which is nicely dried out a little more this time, helps sell the concept despite its weird obligatory feeling. “Groundhog Day” is never mentioned, but when Nyles tells Sarah (Cristin Milioti), sister of the bride, who becomes stuck on November 9th with him, that we’re in “one of those infinite time loop situations you might have heard about”, he gives it the ring of a man who has been watching Harold Ramis’s celebrated time loop comedy for reference. And there are crucial divergences from “Groundhog Day.” If there we tracked the entire progression of Bill Murray’s weatherman Phil Connors, here we meet Nyles deep into the rabbit hole, just as Sarah does, making her our surrogate. She’s the one who wants to get out, and tries unsuccessfully, eventually acquiescing to Nyles’s resigned go-with-the-flow explanations. And once she does, “Palm Springs” is at its best, settling into the mid-tempo groove of a hangout movie, a little like if Jake and Beverly from “Everybody Wants Some!!” got stuck in a time loop, a high concept character study in which the concept puts their selves under the microscope. 

This kind of movie, though, is as much about sticking the landing, because once you write yourself into the corner at the beginning, how are you going to get yourself out? And that is where “Palm Springs” runs into trouble. The ending, rather than truly culminating a character arc, is more about narrative machinations, finding some way to trick the system, more or less, and fashion the happy if formulaic ending. Neither Samberg nor Milioti, meanwhile, can quite make the elegant turns of Murray, which, honestly, is probably asking too much of anyone. Not that I want to end with a complaint. Because wherever “Palm Springs” goes wrong, where it really goes right is when Nyles and Sarah, at their zero fucks peak, invade a biker bar they occasionally frequent and both amuse themselves and baffle everyone with a preposterous choreographed dance. It’s like if rather than Schwarzenegger’s Model 101 Terminator from “Terminator 2” getting into a rumble in the biker bar to get some duds suddenly found himself in an 80s New Wave MTV video instead. Who would ever want to leave a such a paradise?

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