How do you tell a love story, a truly tender one, about two people whose biggest commonality is a commitment to not giving a shit?
If you’re Palm Springs writer Andy Siara and director Max Barbakow, you embrace that sense of nihilism, rather than run from it. You plop your lol-nothing-matters characters into a situation where nothing truly does matter, and have them drill down to figure out if and how love might be the exception.
The film opens in the California desert, on the day of a wedding for two extremely pretty, slightly annoying people. Nyles (Andy Samberg) is a plus-one who sticks out like a sore thumb, with his swim trunks and morose attitude; Sarah (Cristin Milioti) is a maid of honor that everyone knows “fucks around and drinks too much,” as she herself puts it.
Palm Springs feels like an experiment to figure out love itself.
They connect at the reception, and seem headed toward a typically sloppy one-night stand. Then things take a bloody turn, and Palm Springs reveals what it’s really up to.
Nyles, we learn, is stuck in a time loop, and has been for some time. He’s been through this day hundreds of times already, maybe thousands or even millions. And Sarah, to his shock, has now become stuck along with him.
Palm Springs is billed as a “Lonely Island Classic,” and it’s frequently as laugh-out-loud funny as you’d expect from the guys who brought you Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping. Nyles’ blasé attitude toward his situation makes for a darkly amusing contrast to Sarah’s shock and confusion. (“A lot of suicides. So many,” he sighs, explaining to Sarah how he knows killing herself won’t get her out of the loop.)
Once Sarah gets it, Palm Springs becomes even funnier, as the two of them plot ever more ridiculous ways to pass the time. They dance and they crash vehicles, they trade profane tattoos and stage elaborate pranks. In addition, J.K. Simmons occasionally stops by to throw our leads a comic curveball as Roy, another wedding guest who has a complicated history with Nyles.
The time-travel conceit adds a fresh twist to what would otherwise be a very familiar rom-com setup, while the genuine romance brings new juice to what would otherwise be a Groundhog Day redux. Milioti and Samberg are crackling together, their easy chemistry marking them as potential soul mates even before they themselves seem wise to that possibility.
But all of this wackiness is grounded in real pain, and the emotions underneath them run deep. The relentless California sunshine only reinforces Nyles and Sarah’s sense of ennui. The jokes run the gamut from purely silly to downright bleak. The premise reveals itself as an expression of despair, approximating the tedious but crushing burden of a meaningless existence.
Within that context, Palm Springs feels like an experiment to figure out love itself, to understand the extent of its powers and its place and purpose in what Nyles describes as “a world of death, poverty, and debilitating emotional distress.” Through Nyles and Sarah’s endless recursions, it tests the durability of romance in the face of monotony or hopelessness or fear.
“We kind of have no choice but to live,” Nyles tells a freaked-out Sarah early in their infinity together. That, of course, is the horror at the heart of his life, and hers, and all of ours. Palm Springs knows this dread. It lives in it. It invites you to laugh about it, and maybe shed a few tears over it, and when it’s all done, maybe you’ll finally have an answer to the question of what love could possibly be worth at the edge of the void.