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It might not be fair to other similar movies, but Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day has become to standard-bearer against which all other time-loop stories get compared – not that the Bill Murray vehicle is the only film to ever attempt such a concept. The two Happy Death Day movies have applied the conceit to the horror genre, while Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt squeezed high-octane action out of Edge of Tomorrow.

But in a way that movies once were described as “Die Hard on a fill in the blank,” certain films now fall under the umbrella of “It’s Groundhog Day in a fill in the blank.” It’s not a dismissal by any means. It’s a way to better categorize a film’s intent. Palm Springs, then, is a raunchy, unfiltered Groundhog Day set at a California wedding. Or, even better, it’s “The Lonely Island tries to make Groundhog Day.” Yes, that sums it up.

Palm Springs’ time-loop concept is a launch pad for real surprises.

One of the best things about the way that Palm Springs approaches its time loop is that the main character, Nyles (Andy Samberg), has bene stuck in it for a long time when we first meet him. As a result, he doesn’t have to go through the motions of figuring out what the hell is happening to him… and neither does the audience. Director Max Barbakow and writer Andy Siara cleverly establish the concept – Nyles wakes up reliving the same day, over and over – and quickly gets to ways that he can take advantage of it in ways we’ve never seen before.

Usually, that includes Sarah (Cristin Milioti), the unhappy sister of bride-to-be Tala (Camila Mendes), who is charmed by Nyles at the wedding reception. In a way, Palm Springs uses Sarah as the audience’s surrogate, but very little time is wasted on bringing her up to speed on the repetitiveness of the day. Nyles actually flippantly confirms to her that she’s in “one of those time-loop situations you might have heard of,” and it’s so non-chalant, it gets the laugh it deserves.

The other sidebar on Nyles’ recurring day, though, involves Roy, played to perfection by the dry and intimidating J.K. Simmons. Roy is a wild card in Palm Springs. We’ll avoid talking about him here. But he’s important, as Nyles and Sarah deduce if they can ever break free from the time loop that forces them to relive this painful wedding day over and over… or if they even want to break the cycle.

Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti make for a wonderful rom-com couple.

The idea behind Palm Springs only works if you ultimately want the couple to figure out a way to stay together. And I thought Samberg and Milioti played off of each other beautifully. Because Nyles has endured the recurring day for an undetermined length of time, Samberg affects a laid-back, been-through-this approach to the movie’s insanity, no matter how far-fetched things get. This allows Milioti to take on the crazed lunatic role of the newcomer who believes she can break whatever spell hangs over them, especially as she tests the limit of the time loop.

Sooner or later, the characters have to settle in and connect on an emotional level, and these two comedians figure out a rhythm that keeps Palm Springs humming. They’re both willing to go to extreme lengths to make a punchline land, and the each juggle “smart” and “silly,” sometimes in the same comedic sequence.

Milioti, in particular, walks away from Palm Springs convincing audiences she can hold her own in broad comedies and clever, high-concept efforts. She’s also a fantastic counterpart in a romantic comedy – a genre that lately has been overlooked by the industry.

The Lonely Island fingerprints are on Palm Springs.

Even though normal Lonely Island collaborators Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer didn’t write or direct this comedy with Andy Samberg, the team produces under its Lonely Island Classics label. It’s a step forward on the maturity scale from the group’s first two movies, Hot Rod and Popstar. But Palm Springs, like those two movies, cuts through the crass comedy to find heart and legitimate character development. It also shoehorns in sci-fi and fantasy elements without feeling forced.

You can see why Palm Springs won a bidding war at Sundance near the start of 2020, breaking a record for the highest sale price at the annual event. It’s an intelligent and consistently funny crowd-pleaser with more than enough chemistry to satisfy hungry rom-com audiences. Check it out for sure when it lands on Hulu to stream.

8 / 10 stars
Rating: movie reviewed star rating out of five
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