A disclaimer: Palm Springs works best if you see it with as little knowledge about it as possible. Therefore, if you have not seen the film, I suggest you stop reading now and go watch it so that you can return with the full context of the movie.
“You’re a sick fuck, Roy,” was the line that first caused me to pause Palm Springs (2020) so I could cry laugh for a few minutes and not miss whatever came next. It’s not the line itself that did it, though I applaud whomever spun that particular piece of dialogue gold, but rather how the line works as a dramatic release after roughly 15 minutes of building comic tension. From there, the number of legitimate laugh-out-loud moments in the film simply multiplies. The set-up to get there is quite straightforward: Nyles (Andy Samberg) attends a destination wedding in Palm Springs, CA with his girlfriend Misty (Meredith Hagner), and through a curious sequence of events Nyles becomes trapped in a time loop with the bride-to-be’s sister Sarah (Cristin Milioti).
If you’re reading this and thinking, Wow, that sounds a lot like Groundhog Day, you’re not wrong in a general sense. Palm Springs is in fact a romantic comedy that uses more or less the same high-concept wrinkle as Groundhog Day (1993) to set the story up. Yet, while the time loop concept has become riddled with cliché’s since Groundhog Day so elegantly deployed the idea, Palm Springs sidesteps nearly all of them to provide the freshest spin on the idea since Russian Doll (2019-). Nonetheless, that fact does not guarantee that hilarity will follow. Russian Doll used the time loop wonderfully, but it aimed more for dark satire than laugh-out-loud moments. Palm Springs shares the existential dread at the core of both Groundhog Day and Russian Doll and therefore emotes its fair share of that dark humor, but the way that the film approaches and executes that tone alongside slapstick and goofy jokes is a thing of beauty.
In film criticism we rarely stop to give comedy the space it deserves to be appreciated as a high-wire act of balancing expectation and the subversion of that expectation to craft effective jokes. One professor of mine explained it this way: we laugh, fundamentally, at someone falling down the stairs because people are not supposed to fall down the stairs, they are supposed to walk down, and because our expectation of what they are meant to do is subverted, we respond with laughter. Obviously that’s a baseline way to think about it, but if you play that concept out it is a useful approach to wrap one’s mind around how comedy functions. With that in mind, I am going to use this piece to dig into how exactly Palm Springs achieves such effective hilarity by outlining a few broad points, and then analyzing each of them in turn. I’m doing this for two reasons. First, I loved Palm Springs and I want to celebrate its success. Second, I also love comedy, and this is my small contribution to analyzing its mechanics the same way I regularly analyze how a horror movie achieves fear. Now, let’s have some fun.
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1) How They Handle the Time Loop
With the rare exception, the narratives in time loop movies most often focus on a single character who is stuck within the time-space wrinkle and attempts to get out. We see this tweaked for horror in Happy Death Day (2017) and its sequels, altered for action in Edge of Tomorrow (2014), and back to comedy in Naked (2017). Russian Doll is an interesting exception in that the majority of the show features one character, but ends up introducing a second time traveler later on. No matter, the majority of the writers of these stories seem most interested in how isolation wreaks havoc on the human psyche. We see these protagonists desperate to break the cycle, trying again and again to convince others around them that the loop is real, and their failure to do so — or the repeated necessity of convincing the same person every day ad infinitum — breaks them down.
Palm Springs adjusts this by presenting the narrative as a two-hander, a story where Nyles and Sarah are anchored to their endlessly looping hamster wheel together. This choice allows two major conditions to underscore the humor that follows. First, we are linked to the time loop from two perspectives. Nyles has already been trapped inside for an unconfirmed but undoubtedly considerable stretch of time. Sarah, on the other hand, enters the loop just over 12 minutes into the film. The dual perspectives allow the comedy to pull both from the classic ‘fish-out-of-water’ humor that grows when you place an average character in an unfamiliar situation (i.e. Sarah in the time loop), as well as the broader comedy of a character who no longer cares enough about reality to take it seriously (i.e. Nyles after possible years in the loop). The approach pays off immediately, as the first laugh-out-loud moment occurs when Nyles dances over to Sarah before she has entered the loop, and even before its existence has been confirmed. He dances through, mimicking and avoiding other dancers with ease, stealing drinks and putting them back as if he knows how everything will play out. Sarah watches in awe and confusion, much like we do as viewers, and so we can laugh at the absurdity of what Nyles is doing as well as the way Sarah responds to it. Both perspectives present in one gag, a system that is repeated over and over throughout the film.
Secondly, the two-hander approach means we are not tied to one journey through the loop. Groundhog Day is inarguably brilliant, and yet we never move beyond Phil Connors’ (Bill Murray) arc through his first-person perspective. Palm Springs roves from viewpoint to viewpoint, allowing Nyles and Sarah to be together at times, but never shying away from taking them apart and giving us moments alone with each. As a result, both develop into nuanced and individualized characters who approach the time loop in different ways. Nyles is so resigned to his fate, and admits later he is afraid to leave because his life outside is so unrewarding, that his mock-zen approach stops him from attempting to secure any substantial changes to his current existence. Sarah slides into that resigned mindset for a little while, but her narrative is more defined by a desperation to understand the time loop and break it. Put together, tension develops between the two, and that tension adds layers to how both the drama and comedy of the movie play out. If one or the other was only ever a supporting character with no knowledge of the loop, the story would not work because it ends up being about how two people can challenge each other to grow and change. Obviously a different story could be told focused solely on Sarah or Nyles, but that story would mimic so much of what has come before. What we get instead is a buddy comedy mixed with a romantic comedy, and therefore a film that adds to the genre oeuvre in ways that many others have failed to do.
2) A Varied Approach to Humor
As a result of this approach to the time loop and the layered narrative and character constructs that emerge from it, the playground of the story is rife with potential for jokes, gags, and satire. Screenwriter Andy Siara, director Max Barbakow, the uncredited but no doubt present improvisational talents of Andy Samberg, and “The Lonely Island” crew acting as producers all mine that potential for humor, which ranges from slapstick and classic line-punchline set-ups to visual gags. Just as they do not limit themselves to a single driving character for their story, they do nothing to limit their comic potential, and so absurdism exists in conjunction with dark satire. Thankfully though, the creative team is sharp enough to know that such multiplicitous comedy needs a staggered introduction. Having all of these tones thrown in immediately together leads only to messiness, something you can see on full display in the tangle that is Holmes & Watson (2018). The Palm Springs team leads viewers gradually deeper into their weirder gags so we feel quite at home once we go full-tilt crazy.
We begin the story on the morning of the wedding as Nyles wakes up, unaware as viewers that he is in the time loop. He awakens as Misty shaves her legs, and his comment “That’s a nice leg” prompts her to say “Fine, but it has to be quick” before we cut to them having sex. But, this is no titillating or romantic affair, as it ends quickly when Misty says she can’t get sweaty and needs to get ready. Her parting words are “but you can watch me!” and so Nyles sadly masturbates as Misty freaks out about losing her grandmother’s earrings. This is not overly sophisticated humor, but clearly establishes the tenor of Nyles’ love life, and does so with a wink and a nod that is a worthy first joke. From there, we fall into a string of satirical moments about the wedding, peaking when Misty gives a truly horrendous Maid-of-Honor speech and then Nyles swoops in and gives a melodramatic but effective speech while everyone wonders why this random guy is talking. This happens while Sarah watches from the audience, and leads into the aforementioned dancing scene where Nyles moves through the dance floor with preternatural ease. Here the comedy ramps up in terms of jokes per scene, but stays within the same tone. When Nyles makes a move on Sarah and she asks “What would Misty think of us sneaking off?” he takes her to a window to show her Misty receiving oral sex from another wedding-goer. Here, we are treated to the mounting absurding of Nyles and Sarah having a romantic bonding moment just outside the window where Misty is cheating on him, and it is that moment that marks our transition from standard broad comedy to more absurdist content.
The true leap ahead comes at the 12-minute mark when Nyles and Sarah are interrupted mid-makeout when Nyles is shot in the shoulder with an arrow. Here is where we are treated to the wonderful line “You’re a sick fuck Roy!” We don’t yet know that Roy (J.K. Simmons) is an angry man stuck in the time loop as well, but we do know that all of a sudden one of our protagonists has been shot by an arrow. Sarah, understandably, freaks out, and Samberg sells the physicality of the moment. It is slapstick, but with a biting edge that presages the further dark humor and absurdism that will follow. The arrow is so funny because it is a complete subversion of what we expect from two people hooking up on the outskirts of a wedding, and so signals to viewers that we are entering a new stage of the movie where the rules are different. This is vital because the progression from “That’s a nice leg,” to “You’re sick fuck Roy!” is gradual enough to feel natural, but still enough of a leap to preserve the shock factor that the latter moment relies upon to generate humor.
Roy’s attack marks the moment we enter the second act of the narrative, and with it comes the bulk of the comedy, a result of Sarah unwittingly entering the time loop after the attack. Her progression hews closely to what we saw Phil Connors do in Groundhog Day: at first she is disbelieving and desperate to immediately find a way out, and over time accepts that she is stuck for a while and becomes a partner-in-crime for Nyles’ antics. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Directly after Sarah wakes up for the first time in the loop, she sees her family, gets confused, and then rushes to confront Nyles. She throws beer cans at him and then jumps in the pool, giving us a moment of broad comedy, but the peak of the scene comes when her sister Tala (Camila Mendes) runs out to yell at her but proceeds to slip on the slick poolside surface, fall, and knock out three of her front teeth. It is slapstick to a tee, but transitions to satire when we cut inside to the family’s reaction and her father Howard (Peter Gallagher) expresses with joy that he has found a dentist who “glues teeth” and Tala flashes a big, bloody smile. It’s a complete subversion of the bridal image, and it transitions back to Sarah, who is watching in disbelief, but takes the moment as a motivator to pull Nyles into the car and try to get some answers.
It’s here that we leap headfirst into the darkest and funniest section of the film. Nyles and Sarah drive away and Nyles fills her in on the rules of the time loop: when you go to sleep, die, or enter the cave which seems to be the nexus of the time loop, your day starts over, and there is no way to avoid this. Sarah doesn’t fully believe him, but Nyles swears that it’s true, and he knows because “I’ve done a lot of suicides. So many.” The pivot into pitch black humor is bleak, but we have also been building to it, getting to know each character and their general dispositions. Nyles’ matter-of-fact statement matches his personality, and charts with the smiling nihilism that has defined his arc so far. Therefore, when Sarah decides to test it and drive head-first into an oncoming tractor trailer, and Nyles bends over and says he’s “bracing for a quick death….there’s nothing worse than dying slowly in the ICU,” we laugh in spite of the darkness. The expectation subverted here is the human drive to stay alive. Sarah is intentionally killing them both, and Nyles accepts it because he knows that she needs to experience it herself before she can accept it. The scene is both a character building moment and a marker that we are diving deeper into the nihilistic and existentialist bents of the story, but that we will be accompanied into this dread and anxiety by humor.
My favorite part of the movie is the next 15 minutes, where it is gag after gag. At this point, the narrative has built a remarkable amount of tension. We have had no shortage of jokes, but the major plot mechanics have been about introducing Nyles and Sarah, bringing them together, and then orienting Sarah in the time loop. Once that exposition and set-up is out of the way, it is simply time to play in the world that they have built. What this means is that once Sarah comes to terms with existing in the time loop, she and Nyles start doing all manner of absurd things. They steal a plane from a regional airport and fly it until they run out of gas and then careen into a fiery explosion. Reset. They choreograph a complicated dance routine and then burst into a bar in matching denim and red bandanas to perform it, kicking over furniture and breaking beers as they leave. Reset. In one of my favorite gags, they hide a bomb in the wedding cake, and when Nyles takes it out they stage a mock James Bond-esque face-off where Sarah emerges with a hook and a terrible accent so they can do battle. Each of these moments furthers the level of absurdity that we accept, inching us along in the same way that Sarah does, deciding that it is better to lean into the circumstance than struggle against it.
3) Samberg and Milioti Anchor it All
What holds all of that together no matter what route Palm Springs turns down are the performances that Samberg and Milioti deliver from start to finish. Prior to this film, I had limited exposure to both of them. I knew Samberg primarily through his work on SNL (1975-) and in movies such as Hot Rod (2007) and Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016). I enjoyed him, but he was never my first thought when it came to performers I loved. I knew even less of Milioti. Until this movie, I identified her in my mind as the mother on How I Met Your Mother (2005-2014), a small and underwritten role that she was as good as she could be in. Otherwise, she had a small part as Jordan Belfort’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) first wife in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). She has been in many other projects, but I have not seen them. All of this is to say that both performers existed without major baggage in my mind, and so could more purely be Nyles and Sarah without me expecting certain quirks. At the risk of over-generalizing, I imagine this is an experience many viewers share, and I think it plays in the movie’s favor. We don’t bring the same extent of expectation we would with mega-stars like Brad Pitt or Jennifer Lawrence, and so they can more easily just be their characters.
Samberg molds Nyles into a lovable schlub, someone who you wish would pick themselves up but that you cannot really blame for being as checked out as they are. Can you imagine how you would respond to being trapped in a time loop for so long that you forget what job you worked before you came in, as Nyles does? I would no doubt have a series of psychotic breaks, so Nyles’ general ‘fuck it’ vibe charts. Much of Samberg’s acting struck me as a cross-section between Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski (1998) and Bill Murray in Ghostbusters (1984) in the way that he captures the essence of ‘The Dude’s’ resigned nature with the high-strung but spastic energy of Dr. Venkman. The result is a subtle balance of comedic relief and blistering pathos: we feel for the resignation that Nyles projects, but also have no qualms about laughing at what that resignation leads him to do. He develops as the humor does, and so that progression from broad to caustic and then to sweet in the end (more on that to come) mimics the ways that we feel about him.
In a similar fashion, Milioti sculpts Sarah into a figure who would be incredibly tragic if placed in another movie. Sarah is a self-hating alcoholic who knows her family is somewhat ashamed of her, and so she enters the time loop stuck in a day where she must confront a celebration of her sister while sitting with that internal tumult. Alongside the incredible comic timing Milioti brings, she also anchors the film’s emotional core as we watch her develop from that starting point to a much more well-adjusted individual who takes the time to work through many of her psychological scars. She also has some of the most expressive eyes I have ever seen, which plays in the favor of both drama and comedy. They are large and she uses them so well she reminded me of silent film performers like Maria Falconetii and Lillian Gish. That expressiveness allows her to go big, counterbalancing Samberg’s comedic but understated performance. In that way they compliment each other wonderfully, something that allows for a lovely range of comedic duality.
I wrote earlier that Palm Springs operates somewhere between a buddy comedy and a romantic comedy, and I trace that directly to the way that Milioti and Samberg play off one another. Addressing the romantic comedy angle first, because it leads us into the buddy comedy, Sarah and Nyles are a variation on one of the most clichéd plotlines: enemies → lovers. What distinguishes them is that there is more subtlety to their arc. I would diagram it more like this: lovers → enemies → friends → lovers. We see their initial spark in their meet-cute at the wedding, which carries on in traditional romantic comedy fashion until Roy’s arrow comes sailing in and throws that entirely out of whack. When Sarah first lands in the time loop, she is so angry at Nyles that it’s hard to classify them as anything other than enemies, but that loosens as they spend more time together. Normally, this would transition immediately to romance, á la Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011), but we spend more time with them as their friendship blossoms, which is precisely what I think distinguishes the movie from its counterparts. It’s also where Samberg and Milioiti shine the most.
The section of their romantic arc that I’m classifying as the ‘friends’ section is exactly where the movie functions most like a buddy comedy, something in the vein of Hot Fuzz (2007) or The Trip (2010), or, if you want to look even further back, 48 Hours (1982). These movies take two mismatched characters and throw them into tense situations to use their mismatch for comedic relief. I’ve already outlined the ways that Nyles and Sarah clash, but when we place that dynamic in relief of the buddy comedy, we can consider Palm Springs as a perfect hybrid of romantic and buddy comedies. Most importantly though, Samberg and Milioti have remarkable chemistry, both as romantic partners and partners-in-crime.
Nyles and Sarah consummate their romantic relationship, but then have the classic falling out. It’s Harry (Billy Crystal) pushing Sally (Meg Ryan) away in When Harry Met Sally (1989), or Loretta (Cher) pulling away from Ronny (Nicolas Cage) because she’s already promised herself to his brother in Moonstruck (1987). In that regard, the final act of the movie is the most traditional part of the whole project, focusing on the romantic storyline and the way the two distance and return to one another. This culminates in arguably my favorite final speech, another romantic comedy classic straight out of Notting Hill (1999), whichSamberg delivers with passion and humor. Sarah gives Nyles “one sentence” to make his point, and he proceeds to craft a “grammatical nightmare” full of commas, colons, semi-colons, and ellipsis to eek out as high a word count as possible. It’s over-the-top and ventures close to simply silly, but the connection that Samberg and Milioti have crafted saves it from ever going too far. We have seen Nyles and Sarah grow together, pushing one another even as they screwed around crashing planes and planting bombs. Samberg and Milioiti have the comedic range to inhabit each of the tones and layers I’ve outlined in this piece, and the payoff of it all is that Palm Springs wraps up a sublime time loop comedy with a note-perfect summation of the vision of love it ends up professing. Sarah asks Nyles “What if we get sick of each other?” to which he responds, “We’re already sick of each other. It’s great,” before the two walk into the time vortex cave and blow themselves out of the loop with a lot of C4 (if you watched it, this makes perfect sense; if you didn’t, just believe me).
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Palm Springs is a truly wild ride to experience, and that it manages to defy genre norms by incorporating all the best parts of so many different corners of cinema is a filmmaking miracle I’m quite grateful for. What the creative team achieved is just as technically proficient and nuanced as those working in any other genre, and I hope that this piece has done at least a little to help you consider what it means to make great comedy. If not, well, “You’re a sick fuck.”