If you watch enough movies with the “Groundhog Day” premise, you start to feel as if you’re stuck in a time loop yourself. Harold Ramis’ seminal comedy starring Bill Murray has, since its initial release, been retooled into a science-fiction action film (“Edge of Tomorrow”), horror (“Happy Death Day”) and even an anime (“The Girl Who Leapt Through Time”). My friends and I just Netflix Partied a particularly bad one, too (“When We First Met”). The point being, there’s hardly anywhere left to take this concept; even the better “Groundhog Days” hit the same beats as the original, changing only the genre to compensate.
“Palm Springs,” the latest from comedy trio The Lonely Island, is perhaps the first “Groundhog Day” to retool the premise in any meaningful way. It does so kind of covertly, with a simple solution that completely alters the landscape of the film. What if, instead of just one person forced to relive the same day over and over, you make it two? The result is a clever romantic comedy that subverts expectations at every turn. It’s also ostensibly a metaphor for marriage: what is marriage, after all, if not reliving the same day with the same person? Maybe the difference between a good marriage and a bad one is as simple as learning to love the repetition.
The film is about a woman named Sarah, played by Cristin Milioti. She’s forced to go to California for the wedding of her sister, Tala (Camila Mendes). Tala is the golden child of the family, and Sarah is more like the black sheep. She’s miserable at the reception until she meets Nyles (Andy Samberg). Nyles is cool and confident; every line lands as if he’s done this a thousand times before. In a way, he has. After a crazy turn of events I’d prefer not to spoil, Sarah wakes up and it’s the morning of the wedding. She’s stuck in the time loop with Nyles.
A lot of “Palm Springs” is familiar, but much more of it feels quite fresh. Familiar: Andy Samberg. This isn’t a strike against him, but rather a point towards the film. Andy Samberg is doing here what Andy Samberg does best, in peak form as a lovable loser who surrendered himself to the monotony of Palm Springs several loops ago. Because Nyles is such a veteran of his time-travelling scenario, he serves as a sort of time loop guru, allowing the plot to accelerate far beyond the banalities of lesser “Groundhog Days” and towards newer, exciting possibilities.
Fresh: Cristin Milioti. She’s already made quite the career for herself on television, with roles on “Black Mirror,” “Fargo” and as the titular Mother of “How I Met Your Mother.” She’s also acted on Broadway, having been nominated for a Tony in “Once.” But other than a small role in Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street,” Milioti has yet to transition to the silver screen. In that sense, “Palm Springs” is a kind of coming out party. Sarah is often a pretty mean person, but Milioti leans into it, and there’s something about her that makes us root for the character in spite of the character herself. She also has great chemistry with Samberg, anchoring him from a dramatic perspective while rising to his level as a comedienne.
The film is lean and mean (less than ninety minutes long), and while that starves some of the characters of decent development — compared to Sarah, we learn nothing of Nyles’ pre-Palm Springs existence — it also means the movie never bores. First-time director Max Barbakow keeps it moving at a good, quick pace, while first-time screenwriter Andy Siara never takes the story in the direction you’re expecting.
It also makes a surprising case for the joy and meaning of marriage. “You’re my favorite person I’ve ever met,” Nyles says. “And yes, I know it’s crazy odds that the person I like the most in my entire life is someone I met while stuck in a time loop, but you know what else is crazy odds? Getting stuck in a time loop!” 7/10