Back in April, I reviewed Netflix’s Love Wedding Repeat, a film not without its charms, but one I felt fundamentally misunderstood the appeal of its Groundhog Day-style premise: resetting the day without any characters retaining knowledge of what came before prevents the sort of character development that lets this lineage of films persevere. At the time I wondered whether this particular premise had run its course, but merely a few months removed from Love Wedding Repeat we have Palm Springs, which serves as a welcome reminder that the Groundhog Day well hasn’t run dry quite yet.
The not-so-secret weapon of Palm Springs is the minor but critical tweak director Max Barbakow and writer Andy Siara make to the standard formula. Instead of the solitary protagonist, doomed to endlessly repeat the same day over and over until they learn a lesson / solve a mystery / save the world, we instead have three previously unassociated characters stuck in the loop: Nyles (Andy Samberg), Sarah (Cristin Milioti), and Roy (J. K. Simmons). This small change shifts the tenor of the story dramatically. On his own, Nyles is our Phil Connors-esque figure, the initial entrant into the cycle who has mostly given up on ever returning to normal; but the combination of Sarah as a potential partner in crime for the rest of eternity and Roy as the nemesis committed to repeatedly extracting revenge means that Nyles doesn’t have the upper hand held by most every other protagonist in this type of story — a repositioning of the power dynamics that allows the filmmakers to play with tropes in new and unexpected ways.
Barbakow and Siara are helped along by their charming cast. Simmons, as usual, is a delight in a maniacal supporting role, but (as is typically the case with the more successful entries in the genre) it’s the leads that make it all work. Samberg’s particular brand of sarcastically off-kilter pseudo-machismo — put to such good use in Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping and Brooklyn Nine-Nine — serves the narrative well here, invoking the arrogance of Bill Murray in Groundhog Day as a front for a much lonelier and genuinely romantic character. Milioti is superb as Samberg’s foil — a supremely talented actor who has yet to have a true film breakout despite impressive work on stage and television, she uses her uniquely expressive features to her advantage, matching Samberg laugh for laugh while anchoring the film’s emotional core.
Samberg and Milioti’s chemistry is the ultimate strength of the film, imbuing each scene with the right blend of necessary comedy and pathos and carrying the movie through stretches of familiar terrain with enough novelty and wit that the occasional bout of predictability barely matters. In a genre where the key to success is the ability for the protagonist to grow, Palm Springs doubles down, letting both leads learn and grow together to heartwarming and satisfying effect — and in the process reinvigorating the notion that there’s still gold to be mined from a premise that always seems to reset itself just when it feels it has reached the end of the line.