Editor’s note: This is a repost of our Palm Springs review from the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. The movie is now available to stream exclusively on Hulu.
To tell you the plot of Palm Springs, a new comedy film produced by The Lonely Island trio of Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, and Jorma Taccone, is to technically reveal a spoiler. This is a movie that begins as one thing, but then very quickly becomes something entirely different—and it’s downright brilliant. The basic, spoiler-free logline is that two strangers meet at a wedding in Palm Springs—bridesmaid boyfriend Nyles (Samberg) and the maid of honor and bride’s sister Sarah (Cristin Milioti). They become stuck there for reasons outside their control, and then begin to realize the weight of existence might be easier to bear with a buddy. That’s the basic setup, which admittedly sounds quite generic, but screenwriter Andy Siara and director Max Barbakow use this as an entry point for a hysterical, poignant film that could have gone wrong in so many ways, but consistently makes the perfect choice. The result is a hilarious comedy, heartbreaking drama, and genuinely moving love story that dares to say that maybe life is a little better with a companion by your side.
If you don’t want to know any more about Palm Springs, I’m going to get into the film’s actual plot below. I personally consider it a mild spoiler I went in absolutely cold and had a blast discovering what was actually happening, so if you prefer radio silence just trust me that this is one of the best films of 2020 and is a home run on every level—it had me laughing and tearing up in equal measure.
Mild spoilers for Palm Springs follow below.
Now, here it goes. Palm Springs begins by following Nyles, who seems to live his life by an “lol nothing matters” moniker. He doesn’t really care that his girlfriend is cheating on him, he doesn’t really care about this wedding, and this carefree attitude comes off as kind of weirdly charming when the ceremony kicks off. He’s almost unnaturally smooth, and he and Sarah hit it off. The catch? It turns out Nyles is actually stuck in a time loop and has been living this same day over and over again “for a long time,” and Sarah inadvertently gets sucked into the time loop with him.
Right off the bat this is a brilliant subversion of a Groundhog Day or Russian Doll-like premise, because when Sarah gets stuck in the time loop she immediately learns that she’s not alone—someone is right there with her. She tries every trick in the book to get out, which Nyles warns her he’s already tried. After what he describes as years and years at this, Nyles has become resigned to his fate, and quite literally lives as if nothing matters because it doesn’t. He parties, he hooks up with people, he dies, but he always wakes up in the same day.
Nyles and Sarah soon hit it off, and we watch as they enjoy this carefree lifestyle together. Shenanigans ensue, and it’s perfect comedy bit after perfect comedy bit. Nyles and Sarah initially agree not to sleep together, but you can probably guess where this story is going. Over the course of the film, they begin to break down each other’s barriers. They’re both lying to themselves about different things, but in each other they find a reason to get out of bed every day.
What makes Palm Springs brilliant is the various ways it sidesteps pitfalls related to this particular genre. Nyles and Sarah are given equal weight as characters. Nyles isn’t some buffoon whose life is going to be straightened out by the nagging Sarah, and Sarah isn’t merely a sex object for Nyles. The end goal for both isn’t to sleep with one another or to “change” the other person. They both get to be hilarious and witty and messy and sad and complicated, and let me tell you, Samberg and Millioti are absolutely phenomenal here. Both are well-versed in comedy, but they easily vacillate between more goofy Lonely Island-esque humor (the movie nearly had me crying laughing) and truly emotional dramatic sequences (the movie also had me just crying). There’s a deeply human undercurrent throughout Palm Springs that keeps the film firmly grounded despite its sci-fi-infused premise, and it’s a testament to Samberg and Millioti’s performances (and Barbakow’s handle on tone) that it works as well as it does.
This is also one of the most charming and root-worthy onscreen couples I’ve seen in years. At heart, Palm Springs is a love story, but not one with naïve or outdated notions about romance or partnership. The nihilistic nature of Nyles and to some degree Sarah provides a fascinating starting point for their relationship, and as they come to know each other better, the film directly challenges those who truly believe nothing matters. A life can certainly be worth living independently, but Palm Springs drives home the idea of companionship in its own goofy yet genuinely poignant way.
The filmmaking of the film is also wonderfully tight. It’s handsomely shot but not overly stylistic, the editing puts a fine point on both the comedy and drama in terrific ways, and the score by Matthew Compton is an 80s-influenced delight.
This story feels particularly aimed at those who feel nihilist towards existence, and to be honest it’s hard not to feel that way sometimes. But if you’ve ever been in love, or if you’ve found the perfect partner, Palm Springs will hit home. And on top of that thematic resonance, the movie is also just a blast to watch, chock-full of brilliant comedy set pieces. It’s the perfect package. A resonant love story for life in the 21st century. And I can’t wait to watch it again. And again. And again. And again…
Palm Springs is now available on Hulu.