I’ve always been ambivalent when it comes to rom-coms, and being male, that standpoint is seldom heralded as a shocker. It’s not because the concept of romance makes me uncomfortable, mind you, as that would arguably be a bit weird and unhealthy. It’s because in the overwhelming majority of romantic comedies that I’ve seen, the narrative rarely deviates from the garden-variety ‘guy meets girl, mixed feelings give way to heads being over heels, there is a rough patch and self-discovery and then it’s happily ever after’.
I know it plasters a smile across many faces and imbues gut butterflies, but I love the ones that dare to screw with the formula in nutty ways. Something Wild, Groundhog Day and As Good As It Gets all examine the phenomenon of love through their idiosyncratically wonderful and offbeat conduits, those being wanton criminality and facing off with psychos, being trapped in a time loop and an especially mental Jack Nicholson, respectively. They melt your heart whilst doing something different from the same old tropes.
Palm Springs, the directorial debut of Max Barbakow released on July 10, utilises the same time loop concept found in Groundhog Day and pushes the envelope even further, resulting in a very clever, visually striking, brilliantly acted, genuinely funny and moving take on love, eternal life, introspection and the very nature of existence itself.
Andy Samberg of Lonely Island fame plays Nyles, a cynical, heavy-drinking deadbeat who drags his arse out of bed to prepare for the wedding day of Tala Wilder & Abe Schlieffen, Nyles’ girlfriend Misty being a bridesmaid of Tala’s. Lounging around all day on his lilo consuming innumerable cans of beer, Nyles naturally attends the ceremony in a Hawaiian shirt and shorts, blearily surveying proceedings with smug, shitfaced contempt.
Also present among the well-wishers is Tala’s older sister Sarah (Cristin Milioti), a similarly sardonic dipsomaniac so disinterested in the big day that her position as maid-of-honour and requisite speech duties have utterly bypassed her. Sitting there in embarrassed inebriation, Sarah finds an unexpected hero in Nyles, the seemingly deranged and ill-clothed goof making an impromptu, initially bizarre but ultimately well-received speech that gets her off the hook.
Intrigued by Nyle’s caustic wit and complete absence of self-consciousness, Sarah introduces herself and the two strangers find that they immediately click in terms of humour and life philosophy. Confirming that Misty is a pretentious, high-maintenance and unfaithful partner, Nyles throws caution to the wind and invites Sarah for a night of amorousness in the venue’s desert surroundings. After a bizarre attack by a bow-and-arrow wielding lunatic in full camouflage gear (yes, I had the same reaction), an injured Nyles scrambles to a nearby cave, insisting that Sarah stay back, but she neglects to listen to him and enters the shimmering blood orange glow inside the cavern, and immediately wakes up in her bed….on the morning of the very same day that has just passed.
What follows is a bona fide endearing and whacked-out love story that completely works, courtesy of the excellent chemistry between Samberg and Milioti and the fact that their characters are knowingly trapped in a loop together, which fortifies the hilarity and the poignancy of the narrative. I’m neglecting to detail anything that occurs after the reveal of the central conceit, as this is one that you should most certainly approach with as little knowledge as possible, but it was nothing short of a pleasant surprise.
Andy Siara’s ambitious and whipsmart script obviously owes something of a debt to Groundhog Day from the outset, but it intelligently distances itself from the aforementioned film’s story, firstly via having Samberg’s character of Nyles already existing within the time loop, accounting for his hardcore devil-may-care approach to everything around him. Aside from the well-written focal relationship that manages to be simultaneously grounded and kooky, the script deftly handles the myriad questions and hypotheses that such a situation would conjure, snappily playing with immortality, unpunishable recklessness, nihilism vs. existential battle for change and even nods to quantum physics. It also approaches the time loop in an allegorical sense, using it as a framework to address themes of past regrets, fading memories and the difference in perspective that a lack of ageing would instil you with.
Samberg’s manchild idiocy is supplanted here for a more dryly humourous entity with his wits about him, perfectly counterbalanced by Milioti’s Sarah. The film is thankfully bereft of slapstick gags and toilet humour, instead opting for character-driven laughs that tickle the brain as much as the funny bone, and the two leads are supplemented with brilliant performances from the remaining cast, including a great turn from Peter Gallagher as the father of the bride and an especially memorable J.K. Simmons. There isn’t actually a hole to be found, in either acting or plot.
So like I said, I never hold out much hope for romantic comedies and my residual apprehension was present here, objectivity notwithstanding, and I’m nothing but thankful that my expectations were phenomenally exceeded. The humour is earthy and real, the romance is believable and touching, the story is clever and comprehensive, the performances rock and the entire tale makes something fresh out of a well-trodden concept. I’ll eat all of the inedible objects in my house of this isn’t in the majority of critics’ top films of the year.