The malady of the romantic comedy is one of concept. Tangibly, all stories are love stories, with or without love. They comment on the human condition and our own means for finding empathy on-screen. The romantic comedy itself has been long-stagnating but it needn’t suffer against the outcomes of any other genre. There is enough room for novelty and genuine invention, that the love story can never truly go stale, as it is always deeply needed. What Groundhog Day (1993) did for the romantic comedy is incomparable to any other outcome: a true reinvention of the form, a structural reimagining of what romance could be. Palm Springs derives from that but loses little from its new meaning, asking: what if the love interest of such a movie were also stuck inside the same time loop.
What this creates is infinite possibilities for revisions. Every morning, Nyles (Andy Samberg, as funny as he has ever been) and Sarah (Cristin Milioti, remember her name and watch her career blossom) wake up apart and come back together for the wedding of Sarah’s sister. Refreshing, the film starts long after Nyles started looping. He has been living permutations of this very day ad infinitum, locked in the divine comedy of this purgatory with another antagonistic looper, Roy (J.K. Simmons, effective as always). By getting around the fluff of the matter, the played out sequencing of why-is-this-happening-to-me, Palm Springs benefits greatly from accepting its own logic systems at face value.
It is more than the Lonely Island rendition of Groundhog Day, although if you want that, that is also perfectly apt. There is a compassionate throughline inside Palm Springs, a fundamental purpose that brings two people together to better understand relationships. Non-subversively, it can read as a big celebration of monogamy, a regressive idea that this becomes the only normalized option, after enough trial-and-error. But it is not the only outcome attempted. Using its looping mechanic as a comedy playground, each revision comes with some measure of laughter. After a slow start, Palm Springs breezily rockets through new scenarios, and we’re hardly ready for it to end. It is the kind of movie that would be as pleasant as a prolonged series. Instead, it is one of the funniest and most efficient comedies of the year, and we all do need to laugh.
All these Groundhog Day stories the last couple years — the Happy Death Days, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (2018), The Incredible Shrinking WKND (2019), Koko-Di Koko-Da (2019), Russian Doll (2019), and now Palm Springs [Ed. note: must have a type] — express a contemporary need. There is a lot we wish that we could take back. As our lives become gamified with the extensive need to be always online, it would be sensible that we would want to also gamify the movies that tell human stories. That what would once be basic romantic comedies are now high concept, that Game Night (2018) and Ready or Not (2019) are the concepts du jour, and we are most interested in metatextual experiences because our own connections to others have become metatextual; a string of exchanged gifs that describe exactly our times and the modern mode of humor.
Comedy does not have to be one thing or the other. It takes a profound wit and sense of timing to do what director Max Barbakow has done here. It shows true ingenuity, to flexibly bend comedy and sci-fi, and have both premises hold together tightly. That is the greatest function of this open-ended format: it allows multiple, disparate stories to exist together. It is never about the daily recursions. These stories are about finding each other and in their meditative quality, about cherishing the moment and optimizing our lives for the greatest utility. For Palm Springs, it is a platform to tell a great relationship story, for its actors to emerge as heroes of our quarantines, to remind us that while every day may feel the same for us, we are the authors of our days, and it is up to us to make them all count.