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Hulu’s Palm Springs updates Groundhog Day with new twists and energy

Andy Samberg, Cristin Milioti, and JK Simmons model what to do with endless, repetitive life

Cristin Milioti and Andy Samberg, wearing bright swimwear and sunglasses, lounge on neon floats in a swimming pool in the arid desert in the Sundance premiere comedy Palm Springs. Photo: Chris Willard/Sundance Institute
Tasha Robinson leads Polygon’s movie coverage. She’s covered film, TV, books, and more for 20 years, including at The A.V. Club, The Dissolve, and The Verge.

This review was originally published after Palm Springs’ premiere at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. It has been updated for the movie’s public release.

Logline: The black sheep of a sprawling family attempts to tough out her sister’s wedding without being noticed, until she accidentally gets stuck in an endlessly repeating day with an amiable slacker and his would-be murderer.

Longerline: Sarah (Black Mirror’s Cristin Milioti) is a bridesmaid at the Palm Springs destination wedding of her younger sister Tala, and she’s out to get as drunk as possible. It isn’t entirely clear why until much later in Palm Springs, but Sarah is clearly miserable at the match, and awkward around her judgmental family. Then she meets Nyles (Andy Samberg), who saves her from an awkward moment at the post-wedding reception, and she gradually begins to drop her guard with him. But their newly forming relationship is interrupted by a series of weird events, and just a few minutes into the movie, Sarah wakes up on the morning of the wedding, facing all the events of the day she just finished living through.

Sarah confronts Nyles, who admits they’re stuck in an endlessly repeating day, and that he’s been living through countless iterations of this same wedding. He’s as casual about this as he is about everything else: Palm Springs assumes everyone’s already seen Groundhog Day and knows the outline of this story, so director Max Barbakow and screenwriter Andy Siara go light on the setup, and heavy on the fast-paced gags and slow-build character work. Repetition has turned Nyles into a blasé slacker who cracks a new beer open every few minutes, and when Sarah begins trying to spin up time-loop escape routes, he admits he’s tried it all, and now “I try to live my life with as little effort as possible.” In a dynamic familiar from any number of Judd Apatow or Seth Rogen-related movies, Sarah has to be the uptight, ambitious one who pushes him to grow up and move on from his comfortable life of man-child self-indulgence. But first, she relaxes into some childish behavior of her own.

Andy Samburg spits a spray of beer into the air while lying on his back in Palm Springs. Photo: Hulu

The quote that says it all: “It’s one of those infinite time-loop situations you might have heard about.”

What’s it trying to do? Like Groundhog Day itself, Palm Springs has a sneakily sentimental message about the value of maturing and caring about other people, and about valuing time and living your best life and not taking anything for granted and so forth. But also like Groundhog Day, Palm Springs is mostly bent on letting the audience hang out with some colorful characters engaging in increasingly wacky behavior. It’s a romantic comedy, but first and foremost, it’s an actual comedy.

Does it get there? Siara (Lodge 49) and Barbakow (who gets co-credit with Siara for the story) have some serious assets on their hands in Samberg, Milioti, and third wheel J.K. Simmons as Roy, a wedding guest with an understandable grudge against Nyles. Samberg is playing yet another variation on the amiable, approachable dope he’s played in other projects with Lonely Island teammates Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone (both credited as producers here, alongside Samberg). But the role doesn’t particularly get old. Nyles is a jaded know-it-all who doesn’t much treat other people like people anymore, but he isn’t stupid or cruel, just out of options. Samberg keeps him genially relatable enough to make him a workable hero. And his chemistry with Milioti isn’t sizzlingly sexual, it’s actually fun. It’s surprisingly rare to see a nascent sexual relationship in a movie begin with the characters actually becoming friends and having fun together. Palm Springs takes that route, and makes it believable.

Cristin Milioti, sitting among string lights at a wedding reception, rolls her eyes at something offscreen in Palm Springs. Photo: Hulu

Milioti, for her part, matches Samberg’s comic timing, then adds the intensity and recklessness the story needs. Palm Springs moves extremely fast, with an efficient 90-minute runtime and an exceptionally high density of bantering conversations and move-it-along moments. It’s tightly paced and briskly edited. But above all, it’s unabashedly strange and specific — a montage involving Roy’s interactions with Nyles is a particularly fleet highlight — and it’s really, authentically funny. That may come from the way Siara and Barbakow stick to utter sincerity, both when Nyles and Sarah are expounding on the life lessons they’ve learned, and when they’re just messing around, playing with the possibilities of eternal but repeating life. In a film this short, tight, and structured, there’s no time for smug distance, irony, or too-cool-for-school remove. Palm Springs charges headlong into comedy and moralizing alike.

What does that get us? The story may be familiar, at least for those who either grew up with Groundhog Day, or caught modern riffs like Edge of Tomorrow or Happy Death Day. But the execution here feels fresh and playful, with a new energy coming from Samberg and Milioti’s go-for-broke performances, and some new iterations on the formula.

The most meme-able moment: At one point, during a period of enjoying a no-strings, no-consequences, try-anything-once life together, Nyles and Sarah kick open the door to a local dive bar, dance in, and eventually spin around in a coordinated movement, joyously flipping off everyone in the bar at once. #lifegoals.

When can we see it? Palm Springs is streaming on Hulu as of July 10.

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