Confession time: despite fully understanding the appeal they may have upon some people (particularly among a few members of my family), I simply can’t bring myself to watch most romantic comedies. Not that all films in the “rom-com” genre are inherently bad, but most of the ones I’ve seen are generally so listless, unfunny, and just plain unromantic—especially the abysmal Failure to Launch—that I really don’t bother with any of them. So in theory, Palm Springs (a Hulu exclusive co-distributed by NEON) shouldn’t have been a movie that I would like, let alone even watch in the first place. But spurred on by the large amount of praise it received, I eventually did make myself watch it. And as a matter of fact, I actually liked it. Yes, I’m completely serious here.
Admittedly, the “one-day time-loop” plot device upon which everything hinges on is nothing new—1993’s Groundhog Day used it to more memorable effect, and dug far deeper into its characters than this film even comes close to doing. But this time around, there’s a surprisingly clever twist (stop reading now if you want to go in like I did—that is, almost completely blind): at a wedding out on Palm Springs*, the bride’s unprepared maid-of-honor, Sarah (Cristin Milioti), unwittingly gets caught in a time loop… the very same loop that another guest in the wedding, Nyles (Andy Sandberg), has been stuck in for a very long while.
Of course, nothing she does to extricate herself from this situation (driving all the way back to her own home, suicide, etc.) works, so she’s pretty much forced to hang out with this guy over and over (and over) again. [POSSIBLE MILD SPOILERS AHEAD] To make matters worse, Nyles is always having to deal with Roy, a family man understandably turned murderous after getting dumped in the loop too. In fact, him repeatedly shooting Nyles with arrows, then heading into the magic time-loop cave with him close behind, is what even causes Sarah to accidentally join their little predicament in the first place, despite Nyles’s vague warnings to not do so (“Don’t come in here!”). [END SPOILERS]
So needless to say, there’s definitely more going on here than the average Groundhog Day clone, and as the script clearly knows, the possibilities generated by such a scenario are quite literally endless. At the end of the day, though, Palm Springs is way less focused on having a complex narrative than just being a silly, witty, occasionally raunchy, and ultimately sweet slice of absurdist comedy. And on that level, it succeeds quite well… though the slight shallowness of it all initially did lead to me having some mixed thoughts about the film.
Of course, I dispelled them soon enough, but dislikers of Sandberg’s comedic style may find that a bit harder. As someone who knew nothing about him before seeing this movie, though, I found him nothing short of perfect for such a dry, disaffected character. Milioti is also very well-cast as the newest member of Andy’s loop, and the fun, breezy chemistry the two have together is reason enough to check out the film for yourself.
Circling back to Groundhog Day, Phil Connors’ moral and behavioral choices, though seemingly ineffective at first, ultimately affect his time in the loop, making him a better person in the process. In Palm Springs, however, none of that winds up mattering, so the two often do whatever they want with no thought, consequences, or regard for what anyone else may think… though since this is still a romantic comedy, they inevitably end up falling in love with each other (albeit in a way that doesn’t feel cheap or forced—at least, for the most part).
Predictability aside (particularly towards the end, which anyone familiar with the genre will spot a million miles away), many of the situations in this film are hilarious, inventive, and even (comically) dark at points, and combined with the aforementioned chemistry between the leads, a smattering of appropriately bright and colorful visuals, and a smart ‘80s-themed soundtrack (including a perfect use of Kate Bush’s “Cloudbusting”, which my dad—who was otherwise not really charmed by the film at all—really appreciated), the whole package is ultimately more than entertaining enough to make up for its flaws.
Speaking of flaws, though, there is one last thing in that regard that I’d like to bring up. Towards the end of the film, a certain discovery that Sarah makes (which she singlehandedly accomplishes with just a few Google searches and Skype chats, then only has to test once in order to be sure about) really shouldn’t have felt as perfunctory and rushed as it does, especially considering how important it is to the plot. Still, this is a romantic comedy, so in the whole scheme of things, matters like that were forgiven by me pretty easily. If you can forgive them too, then Palm Springs will prove to be a very enjoyable plus to your Hulu subscription. Watch it on date night.
*Fun fact: due to the limitations of the film’s tax credit, it actually couldn’t be filmed in Palm Springs, instead being shot in the Los Angeles area. Couldn’t tell the difference, but maybe that’s just because I’ve never been to Palm Springs myself.