Sign up for Sight & Sound’s Weekly Film Bulletin and more
News, reviews and archive features every Friday, and information about our latest magazine once a month.
▶︎ Palm Springs is available on Amazon Prime.
“It’s one of those infinite time loop situations you might have heard about,” says Nyles (Andy Samberg) to Sarah (Cristi Miliotti). Nyles has been stuck in this ‘infinite time loop’ for decades, waking up on the morning of his friends’ wedding on a ranch in California; Sarah is new to the experience, and having inadvertently followed Nyles into a mysterious cave she finds herself also unable to escape a cycle of endlessly repeating days.
Nyles had resigned himself to a life of perpetual, purgatorial sameness, employing a simple, Epicurean philosophy of seeking pleasure and avoiding pain, but Sarah’s arrival jolts him out of his routine of cold beers and warm swimming pools. With his blasé explanation of their unusual time loop circumstances Nyles is also acknowledging Palm Springs’ employment of what has recently become an all too familiar narrative device (cf Russian Doll, 2019, and Happy Death Day, 2017) – nodding in particular to Groundhog Day (1993), a film whose influence looms large over proceedings.
By beginning Nyles’s story in media res and throwing Sarah in as the angry and confused newbie, Palm Springs avoids rehashing some of Groundhog Day’s most memorable sequences: Phil Connors’s famous suicide montage is here reduced to Nyles explaining death’s futility (“I’ve done a lot of suicides”) and Sarah giving it a quick try just to be sure.
Where Palm Springs forges its own path is in its exploration of the time loop as a shared experience. Sarah and Nyles treat their consequence-free lives as a huge, open-world video game, pranking wedding guests, crashing planes and roleplaying as evil villains and day-saving heroes. Miliotti is at her best in these goofy, lighthearted moments, matching Samberg’s puppy-dog energy and toothy grin.
These salad days are short-lived for Sarah, a woman of greater determination than man-child Nyles, for whom the time loop is an obvious metaphor for a fear of commitment and ‘growing up’. She strives to escape the loop with a refreshing ambivalence as to whether Nyles joins her or not. It’s a shame, therefore, that Nyles’s maturation is the film’s core arc, Sarah’s own personal growth outstripped by his transformation.
Another underutilised character is J.K. Simmons’s Roy, one of Nyles’s earlier time-loop recruits. Initially hellbent on exacting violent revenge on Nyles for his unwished-for fate (after a debauched, drunken night, Nyles drags Roy into the time loop cave), Roy embarks on a vindictive crusade, primarily portrayed via yet another flashback montage – his sadistic recompense includes waterboarding and electrocution. But Roy soon mellows, living out his repeating day in quietude with his family. Good for him, but where’s the fun in that? Like all of Palm Springs’s most promising and original ideas, this revenge subplot is never pushed to its limits. It’s one of those infinite time loop situation’s we’ve heard about, but what’s new?
Sight & Sound June 2021
In our current issue, Mark Kermode and Prano Bailey–Bond talk Censor and the 80s British censorship massacre. Read if you dare! Plus the history of ‘video nasties’, Kelly Reichardt on First Cow, Suzanne Lindon’s Spring Blossom, the sprawling brilliance of Robert Altman’s Nashville, and vintage Jack Nicholson. Available in print and digitally.Find out more and get a copy