Andy Samberg tones down his manchild shtick while retaining his Everyman charms, and he pairs wonderfully with Cristin Milioti in “Palm Springs,” a new Hulu release that gives us a pleasant option amid the shutdown of cinemas. It’s also unintentionally timely for this era when people don’t leave their homes as much: Samberg’s Nyles finds himself stuck at a destination wedding – he’s the boyfriend of bridesmaid Misty (Meredith Hagner) — repeating the day in a loop.
Whereas “Groundhog Day” combines big laughs with a steadily growing poignancy, director Max Barabow’s “Palm Springs” is less overtly funny and more on the nose with its philosophizing. But I like that it keeps the focus on Nyles and Milioti’s Sarah more so than on the time-loop mechanics, which are emphasized in the “Happy Death Day” films.
A lot of the humor comes from Nyles and Sarah being kinda goofy together. When she gets stuck in the loop with him, she’s initially angry. A funny scene finds Nyles seeking refuge underwater as Sarah fires beers at him from the pool deck; it mimics that action-movie staple of bullets whizzing through the water.
Eventually Sarah – the black-sheep older sister of the bride (“Riverdale’s” Camila Mendes) — likes Nyles well enough and they have fun times goofing on their fellow wedding guests, like when they trick someone into walking blindfolded into the bathroom tryst between Misty and another guy. Our time-stuck protagonists sit outside the window, giggling.
The humor is consistently of this quick and light type; the film lacks huge set pieces. This establishes an air of melancholy and meditation, which is appropriate as writer Andy Siara digs into existential questions. Nyles’ outlook on life is that it’s meaningless, so he might as well take it easy. At least 50 percent of his scenes find him holding a beer.
That’s an understandable reaction to being stuck in a situation where his life literally doesn’t move forward; indeed, he’s been in the loop so long he can’t remember what job he used to hold. It’s easy to enjoy life when there’s no pressure to improve himself or give his life “meaning.”
Sarah takes the position that they must escape the loop in order to live meaningful lives; this is of course the mainstream view, but interestingly, “Palm Springs” doesn’t urge us to side with Sarah. We can see Nyles’ point too.
Barabow and Siara trust that we’ve seen our share of “repeated day” films by now, and this one is refreshingly light on exposition. Smartly, when Nyles explains rules to Sarah, he’s not speaking about logistics so much as his impressions of this way of life – for example, what it means to him when there’s no escape via death. Befitting Nyles’ situation, “Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s” Samberg never tries too hard to get us to like him; he’s simply a decent guy who has whittled his worldview down to the simple pleasures.
While “Palm Springs” is unquestionably a showcase for Samberg and Milioti, the supporting cast adds some color. J.K. Simmons plays another time-looper, and Hagner is amusing as the self-centered airhead. When Nyles does the thing where he says exactly what Misty is saying (having heard it before), we actually side with his grade-school annoyance tactics against her. Tyler Hoechlin (the CW’s Superman) has a small arc as the groom; Mendes and Peter Gallagher less so as the bride and father of the bride.
Just when I feel like “Palm Springs” is building into something substantial, it settles into being your basic romantic comedy. That somewhat undercuts its message that there’s nothing wrong with being alone. Still, if rom-coms get by on whether you like the couple, this one succeeds: There’s always an underlying sweetness to Nyles-and-Sarah. These people are together not for the sake of hooking up – something that’s going on all around them at the wedding — but because they’ve stumbled upon a kindred spirit.