Imagine a writer entering a room to pitch “Groundhog Day” meets “Wedding Crashers.”
Most of us would love to see that movie — and now we can with “Palm Springs,” which earned major acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival before debuting on Hulu last week.
Set in Palm Springs, California, the film follows carefree wedding guest Nyles (Andy Samberg) and reluctant maid of honor Sarah (Cristin Milioti), who meet at her sister’s wedding. However, due to a magical force in the desert, they find themselves unable to escape the venue and are forced to relive the chaotic wedding day over and over again.
It has been wonderful watching Samberg’s career blossom from “Saturday Night Live” sketches to The Lonely Island music videos to “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” sitcoms. He is the perfect pick to play a jaded, beer-drinking, swimming-pool-drifting loner whose journey is to learn to live for other people and realize that the world isn’t devoid of all meaning.
His talented co-star Milioti (“How I Met Your Mother”) brilliantly returns serve, volleying back and forth with zingers that often give her the last laugh. Together, they create an authentic romantic chemistry as their characters are forced to bond by spending so much time together in their universe’s own cruel joke of daily Stockholm syndrome.
Their time-loop character arcs draw instant comparisons to Bill Murray’s Phil Connors, who was stuck in a time loop until he learned to become a good person. The “stages of grief” are similar, evolving from opportunistic anarchy (“I can do anything I want without consequences!”) to suicidal detachment (“Put me out of my misery”) to altruistic charity for fellow mankind (“I’m stuck here so I might as well make the world better for others”).
This time, particularly in Sarah’s case, the character growth also includes reconciling with the worst mistakes of your past, learning to put them to bed and move forward as a wiser, self-actualized person. The time loop forces them to relive their biggest regrets at the start of each day, then try to find hope and forgiveness before the day comes to an end.
Screenwriter Andy Siara claims he didn’t have the “Groundhog Day” element in his first draft, which is crazy since it’s so crucial to the plot. Once added, he found new ways to differentiate his version. Instead of the day restarting only when you fall asleep, it can also now restart by visiting a magical portal like the Cave of Wonders in “Aladdin” (1992).
The other main difference is having two main characters’ perspectives, allowing for juicy twists when we see things from the other’s point of view. Even side characters can get stuck in the time loop, so imagine if Ned Ryerson was also reliving the same day. This creates fun subplots involving hilarious veteran actors like J.K. Simmons and June Squibb.
Along the way, director Max Barbakow strikes a tone between broad mainstream rom-coms like “50 First Dates” (2004) and indie gems like “The Descendants” (2011). His most bizarre touch is a desert dinosaur mirage. Is it an acid trip? Or history bleeding through via quantum physics? The writer shrugs that he just liked “Jurassic Park” (1993).
Either way, “Palm Springs” is an inventive take on a gimmick that you might have thought played out. Sure, it loses slight points for not being the first to do it, but it joins “Edge of Tomorrow” (2014) as worthy renditions of the “live, die, repeat” premise in my favorite type of fantasy: magical realism, or in this case, romantic comedy magical realism.
This one deserves repeat viewing. See you in Palm Springs. Again and again.