By any account, Harold Ramis’ 1993 film “Groundhog Day” is an absolute classic, containing not only a unique concept, but a great performance by Bill Murray. But its concept — in which a main character (or characters) live one day over and over again until they break free of the time loop, had much room for refinement and fine-tuning.
Enter “Palm Springs”, a Lonely Island romantic comedy starring Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti as Nyle and Sarah; two individuals who get stuck in a time loop the day of Sarah’s sister’s wedding, instigated by them entering a magical cave. The rules of their predicament are simple: When they fall asleep, the day restarts; when they die, the day restarts; when they enter the cave, the day restarts; and when the day restarts, everything and everyone reverts to what they were at the beginning of the day, with only Nyle and Sarah retaining memories of what happened in the previous version of the day.
In “Groundhog Day”, Bill Murray’s character learns to break the cycle by being a good person and impressing his love interest, which was all the film really had to do to appease general audiences, especially considering the fact that it emulated simple John Hughes family films that were popular at the time. But to make “Groundhog Day” work in 2020, you have to go a step further, which is exactly what “Palm Springs” does.
“Palm Springs” starts off as a straightforward ripoff of “Groundhog Day,” but the film quickly differentiates itself, having all of “Groundhog Day”‘s cynicism, but none of its charm, and its humor is much more blunt and over-the-head. Believe it or not, I actually feel like this makes “Palm Springs” a better film.
“Palm Springs” works better as a drama than a comedy, as Nyle and Sarah are well-written, flawed characters we get to learn a lot about from many different angles, playing to the strength of the film’s time-loop concept. When watching “Groundhog Day,” I always feel like that film is held back by the limitations of the studio system that made it and its inane desire to want to make it family friendly, as while darker themes were alluded to, like the fact that suicide means nothing in a time loop, they are only explored at a very surface level so as to not scare the kids; and I felt like that film had to be charming when it really didn’t have to.
“Palm Springs” had none of those limitations, as it premiered at Sundance and was released on Hulu, where it was very much able to be an adult film and explore profound themes, warts and all. And because of this, “Palm Springs” was allowed to take a deeper dive into its concept than “Groundhog Day” did, specifically the psychological scars living in a time loop creates, especially the horror associated with experiencing the pain of unsuccessful suicides, and learning that no matter what you do, your life will not change for the better or for the worse.
This film also has standout performances from J.K. Simmons, who plays Roy, another person Nyle trapped in the time loop and who hunts him from time to time; and Tyler Hoechlin, who plays the groom, who has an arc I won’t spoil. While they don’t have complex arcs, Camila Mendes is fine as the bride, Peter Gallagher is great as her father, and Meredith Hagner works as Misty, Nyle’s unfaithful girlfriend. There is a lot of talent in this cast, and while I wish some characters had more screen time, the film is laser-focused on Nyle and Sarah’s journey, which allows the film to reach depths it would not have been able to had it felt the need to flesh out its supporting cast.
Overall, “Palm Springs” is a very balanced film, with a narrative that is overall very serious and insightful, that has moments of comedy, creativity and fun. It also looks gorgeous, and it kept me captivated from start to finish.
While Murray’s performance in “Groundhog Day” is classic, I think Samberg and Milioti both individually and collectively surpass what he accomplished in that film, and that’s partially because they have much more interesting characters to play, and their performances were allowed to be more nuanced.
I highly recommend this film. It’s easily the best thing I’ve watched this month.
“Palm Springs” gets a 9/10