If this year has a single silver lining, it might be that the romantic-comedy genre has had a beautiful, and occasionally bizarre, makeover. The rom-coms of the aughts — hot blonde woman falls for hot brunet dude, blah blah blah, New York City — has been cast aside for much less formulaic stories: Alice Wu’s queer Cyrano de Bergerac reboot, The Half of It, is a good example of a creative upending of the usual recipe, while others, like Love Wedding Repeat (Wedding Crashers with time travel), are downright weird. And joining the cadre today is a new addition by Hulu: Palm Springs, Max Barbakow’s feature-film debut and a record-breaking Sundance sale. Spoilers ahead.
Palm Springs combines two of my favorite things in the world: misfit romance and the multiverse. The movie starts out ordinary: We’re at an Instagram wedding in the desert where Nyles (Andy Samberg), is a guest. He’s a zhlubby man-baby in Wayfarers and Hawaiian shirts and is our hero. He wakes up, tolerates his 20-year-old girlfriend, and immediately starts drinking Tecate and margaritas. He joins the nuptials drunk and bored, and he saves Sarah (Cristin Milioti, also drunk and bored) from having to give a sister-of-the-bride speech. So far, so good: Boy meets girl, they skip the party to have sex in the desert, and we all make fun of weddings and the wasteland that is Palm Springs, California.
But no! This is the new rom-com era, and things get weird as hell when Nyles is shot by a cowboy with a crossbow. He runs into a scary-looking cave, Sarah follows him, and the next thing we know our heroine wakes up to the same day at the same wedding in the same dusty Palm Springs resort.
Groundhog Day is probably the most popular cultural touchpoint for the time loop Palm Springs uses at this point (although more recent examples, like Russian Doll and Rick and Morty, get even more zany with it). The idea is that there are multiple — maybe infinite — dimensions; onscreen, writers often play with it by having characters die and then wake up, unscathed, in the same place they woke up the day before that, trapping them in a “loop” they can’t escape.
Sarah is, of course, furious at this realization. For her, hell was already other people, and Palm Springs was already her hellscape. She confronts Nyles, who has been living in the loop for God knows how long, and has decided to submit to a lifestyle of drunken hedonism because, well, nothing matters. Sound familiar?
What to do but submit? Soon, Sarah and Nyles are drinking themselves silly, stealing helicopters, and giving each other stick-and-poke dick tattoos. Sometimes the day ends when they die; sometimes they just fall asleep. They start to fall in love — Milioti and Samberg have a hyper, mischievous chemistry that makes their romance perfectly believable — but the emptiness of their existence begins to wear on Sarah, and she tries to find a way out.
Milioti (and her exquisite set of teeth) are perfectly suited for her role as a decadent depressive, and Samberg’s lazy charisma is also complicated by the unbearable ennui that follows him everywhere. Together, they add a level of spiritual disquiet to a film that would otherwise be pure frivolity. And Palm Springs is a little frivolous, but don’t be fooled: You can’t introduce a time loop without asking questions about What It All Means, questions about life and death and how best to live even your smallest days. In the end, Palm Springs — with its dash of existential dread and a little bit of true love — will join the new wave of rom-coms that are still joyful and silly but so very far from being trite.