Even as someone who thinks Popstar is one of the best comedies of the decade, even I wasn’t prepared for Palm Springs, the latest Lonely Island production starring Andy Samberg (it was actually written and directed by two classmates at AFI, respectively, Andy Siara and Max Barbakow, who eventually got it in front of the Lonely Island boys). It would be great if you could experience it the way I did: knowing nothing of the plot and thinking I was in for a light comedy about yuppie weddings — of which Palm Springs initially does a pretty good imitation. (If you trust me enough, just stop here and see it, read nothing else, and come back to compare notes.)
Then Andy Samberg gets shot with an arrow and everything goes sideways. There’s a twist, of Sixth Sense-ian hallucinogenic potency, and that’s just the first 10 minutes. But here we are again, talking about the twists.
Palm Springs‘ twists will inevitably become over-emphasized, because talking about Palm Springs’ twists is a way of talking about the film without revealing too much, and Palm Springs truly is best experienced cold. Yet presenting Palm Springs as a movie about twists does it a disservice. It’s a film full of surprises whose appeal doesn’t rest on surprise. They’re mostly a means to bigger ideas. I go back and forth about even calling it a comedy. It’s certainly funny, but seems to have more in common with Charlie Kaufman or Michel Gondry or the Coen Brothers — as stylish as those in its construction, but with a more internet-age sense of comedy and timing. There’s a clear sense that the construction of Palm Springs has been influenced by the way jokes snowball and mutate on message boards, which you could never say for the Coen Brothers.
Anyway, if you’ve read this far it’s probably okay to start referencing the plot. How much can you expect not to know about a plot these days and still want to see the movie? It’s like Eternal Sunshine meets Groundhog Day. I hope that’s enough to whet your appetite without spoiling too much surprise.
It all takes place at a destination wedding, where Andy Samberg’s Nyles has accompanied his vacuous girlfriend, Misty, played by Meredith Hagner (in an absolute tour de force of micro-role supporting comedy) to give a speech honoring the union of Tala and Abe, two obnoxiously cherubic, well-to-do Instagram-ready dickheads (more or less). Meanwhile, Misty and Nyles’ relationship is clearly disintegrating, turning Nyles into a hedo-nihilistic agent of pure chaos. He seems to be a hit with everyone at the reception even though he’s dangerously drunk and flouting all convention (“Why is he dressed like he’s going to a luau?” asks a background character as Samberg drunkenly grabs the mic).
Nyles eventually ends up alone with Sarah (Cristin Milioti), sister of the bride and Nyles’ comrade in cynicism, a meet-cute that seems somehow engineered, in an ineffable way. That’s when the “big event” happens. To call it “derivative” of Groundhog Day isn’t really fair or accurate, it’s more like a joke that builds on a shared, acknowledged premise — which is what good jokes do, especially in the internet age, where memes mutate and swallow new memes until they become something new and absurd.
But as much as Palm Springs mines its own premise for comedy whenever possible, it’s not really about the jokes. It’s bigger than that. The looping premise (TMI?) is both a metaphor for existence and a riff on the nature of relationships. It’s zany and silly and sometimes cute, all while being sneakily profound.
“We’re gonna be so sick of each other.”
“Yeah, it’s gonna be great.”
Without Andy Samberg’s puppy dog charm, JK Simmons’ steely intensity, and Cristin Milioti’s sardonic vulnerability (it’s a delicate dance, and she performs it deftly) the whole thing might not work so well. Or, to put it another way, these are characters you could enjoy in a much stupider premise. But Palm Springs is the perfect kind of art-comedy. It comes on like a brilliantly silly little lark and eventually lands on you like a ton of bricks.
It’s a movie about… being able to find happiness in what can feel like meaningless, repetitive drudgery; about the abiding loneliness of existence, and about ultimately being stuck with yourself. With not just your own tendencies but with the ever-present weight of your history. How much of what you do is because it makes you happy and how much is you building towards some future goal? How much do those future goals really matter, aren’t they ultimately meaningless? What if you stripped away all possibility of any future goal or the normal external benchmarks of personal growth? Would that make your life more meaningful, or less?
True, some of these themes do show up in Groundhog Day (close to a perfect movie in its own right) but whereas in Groundhog Day they were high concept, Palm Springs gives them honest introspection. Palm Springs is a movie that stares into the abyss and finds… well, love and humor, mostly. It makes sense to me.