Andy Samberg was born on August 18, 1978. I was born on August 18, 1982. Andy Samberg is exactly four years older than me, and ever since his days on Saturday Night Live, I’ve used him as a sort of measuring stick for my career. This is both unfair to him and to me, but I am a deeply flawed man, and I survive by admitting and at times embracing said flaws.
I will never be as successful as Andy Samberg, and I’ve never tried to be. When I say “measuring stick,” I use it more in a philosophical sense. I’ve watched his career progress for the last 15 years, steadily honing both his style of humor and his abilities as a writer and performer. I will never be on something as cool as, say, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, but I’d consider myself at the top of my game if I ever got to write an episode, for instance. The idea is not to match the man who predates me by four years, but to achieve the same steady improvement, to be visibly building more and better than before.
It’s appropriate then, in that sense, that Samberg give us one of the best pure comedies of 2020, Palm Springs, released six months ago on Hulu (I forgot we even had it in my house, or I’d have watched this WAY sooner). It uses the same time loop plot device as the all-time classic, Groundhog Day, but like Samberg’s career arc, it elevates the concept and finds new ways to make us laugh and smile. Just like Bill Murray spent his entire film improving himself until he got it just right, so too does Samberg use this performance – perhaps inadvertently – to show just how much he’s grown as a comic force, getting his own version of “just right.” It also helps that the flick is just downright hilarious.
Samberg stars as Nyles, a generally blasé guest at a wedding, where his girlfriend Misty (Meredith Hagner) is serving as a bridesmaid. He has lazy sex where he can’t finish, lounges in the pool, and generally stays out of the matrimonial affairs. He’s your standard-issue aloof +1 who basically has only the most tangential relationship with the bride and groom. That is, at least, until the reception, where a pitch-perfect toast draws the attention of the bride’s sister, Sarah, played by Cristin Milioti (best known as the “Mother” we all eventually “Met” in one of the greatest sitcoms of all time), who is equally detached from the ceremony as the family’s black sheep.
At this point, things go delightfully off the rails. As Nyles and Sarah begin to connect – including catching Misty cheating on him – Nyles is suddenly shot by an arrow from what appears to be a deranged hunter named Roy (a fantastic J.K. Simmons) and is chased into a cave with an ominous red glow. Despite warnings to the contrary, Sarah follows, inextricably drawing her into Nyles’ personal Hell of constantly repeating the same day.
Even if you knew about the time loop concept going in, this is a wonderfully jarring way to introduce it, especially when compared to its obvious spiritual forebear, Groundhog Day. In the 1993 film, Bill Murray plays Phil Connors as a cynic who hates the quaint folk holiday and the hokey small town. We watch the character go into his eventual purgatory and get sucked in by an unknown force. Here, Nyles is a complete nihilist (I’m sure there’s a link between that worldview and the character’s name) because he’s already in the loop. Roy’s completely out of left field introduction serves as a gut punch not just because of the graphic violence, but because it lets us know that we’re watching this story in medias res, and have no idea who Nyles was before this happened, or what he could be after. It also forces us to look at Sarah as the potential Phil Connors analog, because she’s the one who actually gets roped in to the already extant situation. She’s the one who has to now adjust to reliving the same day, while Nyles is already well into the acceptance phase of this unbelievable circumstance. It’s extremely difficult to take a concept that’s already been done perfectly and take it to the next level, but in just establishing the rules of this world, Palm Springs accomplishes the seemingly impossible and does just that.
And since we basically dispense with any attempts to explain why the loop exists (until the final act, at least), that leaves a solid hour to just have fun with the device. Samberg and Milioti are both tremendous comedic talents, and their chops are on full display as they flirt, prank, and generally just fuck around in a way that we all might do if we found ourselves in this situation. Nothing matters, so why not enjoy every moment once you’re used to the idea of this ever-repeating cycle? One of the greatest scenes of Groundhog Day for me was how, after several times reliving the day, Phil is able to rattle off every answer on Jeopardy! with bemused disinterest because he’s simply memorized them all. Similarly, here I love how Nyles and Sarah systematically mess with everyone around them in a consequence-free environment.
But where the film really stands apart is in how sneakily profound it ends up being when it comes to grander ideas like solitude and existentialism. In its quest to gloss over pretty much any and every detail, the movie achieves a sort of reverse psychology that leaves us in the audience questioning everything, be it mundane things like why it’s set on the specific date of November 9 instead of the more immediately recognizable February 2 of its predecessor (my headcanon is that it’s November 9, 2016, the universally agreed upon “Worst Day Ever” for about 52% of the country at that point), or much more lofty concepts like the impermanence of memory and how the most painful thing they can experience is a long, drawn out death. There are real world parallels to that latter idea that have become all too poignant over the last year for millions of us.
More than anything else, though, I love this movie because, like other modern-day miracles like The Big Sick or Trainwreck, it’s a romantic comedy that prioritizes the comedy to lull us in to the romance. As I said, Samberg and Milioti are just hysterical throughout these proceedings, and they’re fully committed to the bit, but it helps immensely that the material they’ve been given is so crisply written and edited as to give us jokes that land consistently. And once that happens, we’re more at east to deal with the heavier issues of loneliness and guilt, of intellectual growth and emotional honesty. As much as I love Groundhog Day, I never believed for a second that Phil and Rita would live happily ever after once the credits rolled, because it was just Phil’s story. Everything happened around him. By starting this story midway through for Nyles, at the end for Roy, and at the very beginning for Sarah, you create necessary alternative perspectives, so that our main couple can actually develop a more lasting, realistic bond in the midst of all this craziness, and even our antagonist can find peace and a glimmer of hope in his despair.
The classical term for a “comedy” play is simply one where everyone ends up together in the end, typically through marriage, and a lot of rom-coms use a formula that starts with that ending and works backwards plot-wise to create an idealized and/or convoluted reason to get to that happy ending. Here, the story and characters come first because the filmmakers and the cast know the happy ending is a given, and thus work from the beginning to make that ending as emotionally believable as possible within the outright ludicrous context. It’s a much more mature approach to the genre, one that shows that even when you’re using a plot device that’s ubiquitously associated with one film, you can still grow and explore it from a completely new angle, and that’s what makes me smile more than anything else (except for the fact that I’ve been crushing on Cristin Milioti for years, but I fully admit I’m hopeless in that respect). Who knows? Maybe judging myself by Andy Samberg’s example isn’t as pathetic and quixotic as it would appear on the surface. If I can come up with something as good as this within the context of my own career four years from now, I’d definitely be content.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? How would you hijack a wedding reception? If you were stuck in an unending time loop, which Oscar-winning actor would you want hunting you? Let me know!