So great is the Groundhog Day idea that Palm Springs can squeeze a whole other film out of it… and there’s enough conceptual space for it to be great too.
Writer Andy Siara knows he can’t get away with a straight retread and so tweaks the Groundhog Day idea a bit. When we first meet Palm Springs’s Bill Murray – Brooklyn Nine Nine and Saturday Night Live guy Andy Samberg – he’s already inside his own endless time loop. Siara takes things one stage further by imagining that Andie MacDowell and Chris Elliott (the GD camera guy) also somehow made it into the loop too, with all the possible extra complications that would have.
But the really smart idea is to tell the audience none of this, instead introducing us to Samberg’s Nyles in a blisteringly fast sequence that includes sex, masturbation, a lavish wedding, scene-stealing speech-making, a seamless and odds-defying ninja disco sequence, a meet-cute, and an appointment with a mystery archer who wants Nyles dead.
We’re, what?, 15 minutes in? In a way the film cannot recover from this frantic, frenzied, funny first few scenes and it doesn’t even try to. Instead it pins its hopes on the interaction of Nyles and Sarah (Cristin Milioti), the drunk, disillusioned too-smart-for-this-shit sister of the effervescent bride. Think Aubrey Plaza or Sarah Silverman. The hot snark.
Nyles has been repeating this day for so long inside his hell-is-other-people’s-weddings time loop that he’s developed a Zen-like acceptance of his lot. This is now his life. Sarah is an unexpected new arrival in his loop-world, having ended up there by accident, while the equivalent of “the camera guy”, the vengeful archer, is Roy (JK Simmons), a smart-alecky drug-fiend guest at the wedding who’s wound up in the eternal present thanks to a misstep by Nyles – and Roy’s not happy about it.
How much of the plot to reveal? I think that’s enough, though the beats are nearly all Groundhog Day – getting to know (and manipulate) people, learning stuff and deploying it down the line in a cool way (think Bill Murray learning jazz piano), flirting with danger then embracing it, elaborate suicide, cynicism giving way to acceptance. All buttressed by the will-they/won’t they chemistry of Samberg and Milioti, who are great both separately and together.
It’s funny that when Sarah asks Nyles what exactly is going on with always waking up in the same bed on the morning that her sister’s wedding is to take place, he replies that it’s “one of those infinite time-loop situations you might have heard about” rather than just saying “Groundhog Day”, which is how almost everyone else on the planet would describe it. Siara is clearly messing with us, and to be fair to him in interviews has mentioned other time-loop movies like Day after Tomorrow and Happy Death Day (which did reference Groundhog Day), and anyway he’s in charge so there we are.
Thanks to director Max Barbakow, Palm Springs does have a style of its own, a brash Palm Springs resort style, in fact, all loud shirts, bright light and partytime atmosphere. And the action antics, when we get them, are lifted straight out of Wile E Coyote. Planes do not crash in this film, they plummet at full power perpendicularly into the ground.
It’s a very funny film, snort-down-the-nose funny, though the big laughs – often sex gags – do tend to be front-loaded. It’s also a bit light on what you might call development – we are quickly introduced to Nyles, Sarah and their situation, with guerrilla interventions from Roy, and then suddenly Sarah, thanks to Groundhog Day logic, has become an expert in quantum mechanics and has come up with a theory about how to escape. Gender politics having moved on since 1993. In the middle there are gags. Good gags, though, good gags. No wonder Palm Springs became Sundance’s biggest ever sale.
Palm Springs – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2021