Palm Springs

Cristin Milioti and Andy Samberg floating in a pool

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.

JK Simmons as Roy
JK Simmons as Roy

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.


Jesper and Klaus

When is the best time to watch Klaus, an animated film aimed at the 2019 Christmas market? In February 2021, obviously. Though why not? Here in London there’s snow on the ground and the coronavirus is keeping a lot of people indoors still. Just add a piece of dense fruit cake and a glass of decent whisky and absolutely why not?

It’s the story of how Santa Claus became Santa Claus, or Father Christmas if you like, since the two characters are now almost one. Not the Santa story as we already know it. Actually, come to think of it, do we already know it?

Whether we think we do or we’re sure we don’t, Klaus finds a spot in the woodwork into which it can fit a whole extra bit of lore – the new bit is all about Jesper (voice: Jason Schwartzman), the spoilt grown-up son exiled by his rich and permanently disappointed dad to the snowy remote town of Smeerensburg and ordered to stay there until he has revived its postal service. Not kill a dragon or find a grail but a task all the same.

Smeerensburg is at war with itself, a generations-old feud between rival clans the Ellingboes and the Krums having roped in all of the town’s residents, who devote all their energies to vendettas. No one writes letters or posts them. The post office is a wreck, the local teacher (voice: Rashida Jones) has turned the school into a fishmonger’s and so none of the kids can write. Civilisation, in essence, has broken down. It is a dark miserable place.

Blundering about like the entitled brat he is, Jesper eventually half-accidentally half-coercively takes his first letter off a sad child. It’s destined for a gruff and scary old hermit who lives out of town. Klaus (JK Simmons) lives in a shack full of toys for the children he never had. After much vamping of the getting-to-know-you sort between Klaus and Jesper, delivery is completed and a rubicon is crossed. Klaus is not scary or mean, it turns out, so much as a very sad one.

This tiny act of engagement has unintended consequences, which soon ripple out and start to multiply. And when the townspeople see the positive benefits that flow from kindly actions, the pace quickens. Reluctantly at first, but at increasing speed, almost everyone stops being mean.

Klaus‘s main conceit is that the whole Santa shebang comes about as a series of unconnected events, more accident than design. The naughty and nice list. The red Santa suit. The flying reindeer and sleigh. The delivery down chimneys. All explained, quickly, satisfying, in terms that are less magical and more practical (though still a bit magical, in case you’re worrying that Klaus is killing the wonder of Christmas).

Mrs Krum and Mr Ellingboe
Mrs Krum and Mr Ellingboe

Co-director Sergio Pablos is an old Disney hand, having worked in what’s called the Disney Renaissance era on films like Aladdin. He reaches back to that era and hand-drawn techniques from even further back, all the way to Snow White, for a computer-assisted old-school animation reminding us how expressionistic Disney used to be – Smeerensburg, for example, isn’t just a town, it’s a brooding, sagging bag of dark and angular shapes.

With his shaggy beard and wooden toys, Klaus comes across almost as an artisanal hipster while Jesper is more your MBA-wielding consultant using advertising razzmatazz to hook Klaus up to an existing brand – Christmas – and exploit it for its vertical and horizontal marketing synergies. At one point Jesper, explaining to the town’s children the win-win of going along with the whole Christmas thing of being nice to each other, is deliberately represented as if he were a drug pusher at the school gate.

The locals are not forced into doing Christmas, they’re gentled into it. Klaus is nudge theory in bite-size chunks.

The name Klaus rhymes with house, by the way, rather than pause, a nod to the myth’s supposed Nordic origins (Saint Nick himself was Turkish). It’s a declaration that this is an origin story, which it obviously is. Klaus’s big achievement is to peel back the layers and yet also keep them intact. It’s undeniably a smart movie, though the really sharp stuff is front-loaded. Once Jesper and Klaus have got the Christmas show rolling, there’s no real doubting which way this is heading, the Ellingboe and Krum elders’ attempts at derailing terrorism to one side.

The arc is from the novel to the familiar, from the smart to the cheery, from piping hot to glühwein warm. Goodwill to all cotton-wools a film that doesn’t attain the classic status it looks initially like it has in the bag. As for the notion that it’s a Christmassy remake of Kevin Costner’s mad folly The Postman – mailman restores civilisation to post-apocalyptic world single-handed – surely not.

Klaus – get the music from the film at Amazon

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