*There are mild spoilers in the following review*
It’s been nearly thirty years since Bill Murray lived life on repeat for his sins and our enjoyment, but the Groundhog Day(s) still keep coming. It can leave a fan of that 1993 classic feeling a bit like Billy himself, forever waking up to “I Got You Babe”: “Wait, haven’t we done this before?” they might catch themselves asking. Yet for every dozen inferior iterations of the Phil Connors self-improvement plan, along comes an inspired one. Palm Springs, which devises a romantic comedy of déjà vu routine for Andy Samberg, won’t make anyone forget the wonders Harold Ramis worked with essentially the same premise. But like Edge of Tomorrow before it, this latest variation does find ways to build one, rather than simply recycle, the pleasures of its inspiration. And it turns out to be something kind of special in its own right: a modern rom-com that’s funny and inventive and sweet and (a little too yet) totally mainstream and a little deranged all at once.
One of the film’s cleverest choices actually comes from an early draft of Groundhog Day: The movie opens in media res, with the cursed already trapped on the cyclical nature of time. In Palm Springs, Nyles (Samberg) wakes up every morning to find that it’s still November 9th, the day of the wedding he’s come to the desert of California to attend. He’s there with his bridesmaid girlfriend Misty (Meredith Hagner), who’s cheating on him with someone else in the wedding. Not that this, or anything else, bothers him much. Cracking a beer during the ceremony, wandering the reception in an informal short-sleeve tropical shirt and swim trunks, Nyles clearly doesn’t give a damn about much. He entertains himself mostly with his godlike all-knowing, which he sometimes uses to seduce his fellow wedding guests. Early into the movie, he performs a carefully choreographed routine on the dance floor anticipating and incorporating the impromptu moves of everyone in the space.
This is the first of numerous hints that, conceptually, we’re back in Punxsutawney. We learn the familiar nature of Nyles’ predicament at the same time as Sarah (Cristin Milioti), the black-sheep older sister of the bride, who goes into the desert to fool around with Nyles and ends up getting sucked into the same cycle that turned his life into a skipping record. This wrinkle in the formula, making Groundhog Day a shared ordeal, allows Palm Springs to have its cake and eat it too — to explore its scenario from the perspective of someone new to the nightmare and someone who’s been engrossed in it so long that he can’t remember anything about his life before the wedding. It’s a sharp dynamic, pitting Samberg’s sardonic resignation against Milioti’s panic and denial and outrage.
Some of Palm Springs is a little raunchy, and some of it is surprisingly dark. There’s a subplot about yet another wedding guest who Nyles accidentally pulled into the loop — a distant relative played by J.K. Simmons who periodically shows up to torture and kill the loudmouth who ruined his life. He’s essentially Elmer Fudd to Nyles’ Bugs Bunny, except that Simmons doesn’t play the character like a cartoon, exactly; his rage and sadness are understandably real. Palm Springs understands that being stranded at a wedding that won’t end, with the bad speeches and sappy traditions, would be a special kind of hell — especially for someone with only a loose connection to the happy couple. The script, by Andy Siara, has some fun deviating from the Groundhog mold, raising and then refuting its moral solutions, while also still feeling a little labored in the third act. Overall, the film works as a love story, too — it’s charming but not too saccharine, in part because Samberg and Milioti make their characters’ cynicism feel genuine, and not like an artificial obstacle.
In his feature debut, director Max Barbakow even makes you question whether Samberg could truly be a romantic lead, while still finding some melancholy under the star’s amiable doofus routine; through the lens of his winning performance, the time warp begins to look like a garden-variety track, the kind you fall into to close yourself off from happiness. And, thankfully, Palm Springs doesn’t turn Milioti into his manic-pixie salvation — her Sarah is as screwed-up by her bad decisions as Nyles is. If there’s one aspect that Palm Springs possibly improves upon Groundhog Day in any respect, it’s in the rapport between its leads: This is true duet, putting its temporally imprisoned characters on more or less equal footing, with Milioti expressing a hilarious existential desperation that Andie MacDowell certainly wasn’t afforded.
Of course, Groundhog Day was, by design, basically The Billy Murray Show, and it operated phenomenally on those terms; the romance was less crucial than what it spurred: Phil’s transformation from a signature Murray wiseass into an enlightened human being — a karmic attitude adjustment that, miraculously, never turned preachy. Palm Springs, like just about any Groundhog Day offspring, doesn’t have as rock solid a backbone as that. (It doesn’t help that it gets a little too sentimental at tiny points and gets a little hung up on the pseudoscientific logistics of the loop.) But the film puts its magical conceit to smart use, deploying it as a multi-purpose metaphor for a long-term relationship: Once they’ve become co-conspirators in time-killing mischief, Nyles and Sarah basically carve out their own little reality — it’s a fantastic expression of that feeling of being the only two people in the universe, the only ones that really get it. The flip side, of course, is that monogamy can leave you feeling stuck, living the same day over and over again, with only your significant other for company. That the film can touch on all that while remaining a breezy delight is a testament to its charms — and reason enough to go once more around with this perpetually repeated premise. Equally charming and inventive, Palm Springs is a film of expected endings but carries notions of finding purpose and loneliness that ultimately feel decidedly sharp and urgent.
Palm Springs is available to stream on Hulu