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Within a fairly conventional rom-com, “Palm Springs” offers unnerving of-the-moment insights

Max Barbakow’s take on the time-loop premise hits Hulu on July 10.

Max Barbakow’s take on the time-loop premise hits Hulu on July 10.

Although it was created and sold for distribution before the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread in the U.S., Palm Springs (2020) is being retrofitted and marketed as a sort of “movie of the moment.” Max Barbakow’s time-loop romantic comedy is set at a destination wedding in Palm Springs, California, where its two main characters are doomed to repeat the day of merriment over and over, literalizing the widespread feeling of days bleeding into one another under quarantine. Setting its mid-high-concept premise aside, the film functions as a fairly conventional (though still funny) romantic comedy about a man who needs a woman to rescue him from slacker-dom.

Palm Springs’ main subversion of its central trope is that it opens with Nyles (Andy Samberg) already hundreds of iterations into the loop. He’s manipulated the small world of the wedding day so much so that he’s able to perform a presciently choreographed one-man dance to win the affections of the bride’s sister, Sarah (Cristin Milioti). When their tryst is interrupted by a strange man named Roy (J.K. Simmons) hunting Nyles for sport, both men disappear into a glowing cave nearby. Sarah follows and then wakes up having unwittingly entered the time loop. She’s initially confused and angry with Nyles but, after several cycles trying the usual means of escape (running away, a tremendous act of selflessness, some suicides), she warms up to the cool numbness that develops when the will to live vanishes but death is impossible. Nyles has made a home in this purgatory, having a worn-in understanding of the loop as a boozy accountability-free sandbox.

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While both characters are “flawed” in the way that otherwise appealing and charismatic people in movies usually are (Sarah is an acerbic, shiftless alcoholic; Nyles is a more affable shiftless alcoholic), Nyles, in particular—lovable goofiness aside—may not have been a catch even before he fell into the loop. When asked about what he did before he got stuck, he’s ultimately disinterested and unable to remember. It’s unclear whether this is due to the sheer number of time-loop repetitions that have erased any sense of perspective on personal history, or whether he didn’t care much to begin with. It’s a chilling scene—Nyles lived hundreds of lifetimes and still came out about as alcoholic and condescending as the average Judd Apatow protagonist. The concept of the movie really works in favor of a character like this; in a world with no real stakes, a complete lack of ambition is more virtue than vice. Barbakow and screenwriter Andy Siara seem to have worked backwards to find the most plausible reason a generally self-respecting person like Sarah would fall for someone like Nyles, and devised a more flashy, existential Stockholm Syndrome. If there’s anything novel to Palm Springs’ time paradox, it’s how it’s used to explain away Nyles’ all-too-familiar apathy, taking an unconventional route to a deeply conventional character.

This being a comedy, the laughs-per-minute are kept at a respectable rate. Characters trade funny but morbid asides while contemplating their meaningless existence, much like how many of us have learned to couch observations about the current waves of national trauma in otherwise light conversation. But if Palm Springs really has anything to say about “the moment,” as so many will desire to interpret, it suggests that involuntary isolation is, for some viewers, an excuse to indulge in their worst qualities. Of course, this time loop is not a perfect analogue for a real-life moment in which most of us aren’t afforded the ability to crash airplanes or sleep with everyone we meet. Our tedium is the opposite of Sarah’s and Nyles’ own, reinforced by an omnipresent fear of death instead of the neutering of its meaning. But a viewer may see something frightening in Nyles that reflects the way they’ve stretched their worldviews to become bad-habit apologists.

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