Picture yourself floating on a glistening pool atop an inflatable raft shaped like a giant slice of pizza, smack dab in a sunny oasis, with a freshly cracked can of cold beer. Sounds relaxing, right? Well, for Nyles (Andy Samberg), these #vacationvibes are an everyday occurrence — for eternity.
Director Max Barbakow’s debut narrative feature, Palm Springs, follows Nyles, a superchill guy who’s casually living in a very specific kind of boyfriend hell — the perpetual and ever-repeating slog of attending the wedding of his girlfriend’s best friend in, you guessed it, Palm Springs, Calif.
Nyles might be endlessly gliding around his life of neverending leisure, Groundhog Day-style, but it’s obvious that below his nonchalant attitude, he’s anything but happy. He seems bored, listless and disinterested — passing off an aloha shirt and swimming trunks as wedding attire and opening a beer in the middle of the vows as he vacantly recites, “Today, tomorrow, yesterday — it’s all the same.” It’s clear that Nyles has merely resigned himself to a life of permanent aimlessness and consequence-free day drinking — that is until he meets Sarah (Cristin Milioti, The Wolf of Wall Street), the bride’s reluctant, wine-gulping older sister.
When Sarah is ambushed with the request (nay, demand) that she make a speech at her baby sister’s reception, she anxiously wipes the wine stains off of her face and begins to stumble up to the stage. Nyles, who’s seen her go through this tragic endeavor many times before, steps in to share his “thoughts on love” and effectively spares Sarah from an embarrassing fate. Amid his toast to the newlyweds, Nyles darkly remarks, “We are born lost, then we’re found. But we’re all just lost, am I right?” This morbidly funny proclamation grabs ahold of Sarah and solidifies the feeling that this is certainly not going to be your mother’s romantic comedy.
As the reception swings into full gear, so does Nyles, for this is truly his domain. He’s seen swiping drinks from random party guests, confidently strutting along the dance floor to infectious ’80s synth pop (a la Samberg’s infamous The Lonely Island spoofs) and charming everyone in his path with witty stories and unwavering attention. There’s a magnetism about him that’s equal parts alluring and absurd. It’s the kind of charisma the actor has become famous for — displaying it on “Saturday Night Live,” “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and his various comedic film roles — but this time, his bravado is much more complicated.
There’s an underlying ennui to Nyles’ decidedly unserious exterior, and it’s this curious complexity that unearths Samberg’s real acting skills. Without this depth lurking just below the surface, the character would still feel lovable, but ultimately too shallow to remain interesting. Instead, Samberg portrays Nyles as painfully realistic, complete with hysterical highs and relatable lows. He moves through the world with his hurt just beneath the sleeve of his deeply inappropriate aloha shirt — it’s a performance so honest and authentic that it’s genuinely touching to watch.
As Nyles shamelessly flirts with Sarah against the ridiculous backdrop of his girlfriend Misty (played to flighty perfection by Ingrid Goes West’s Merideth Hanger) being actively unfaithful with the wedding’s officiant, the two playfully bond over their shared sense of inadequacy. They both communicate that they feel as though they’re suffocating, albeit in different ways (she with her warped family dyamic and he with his endless time-loop torture), and, as they begin to let their guards down, they discover a fascinating freedom in one another.
What follows is a scene in which their half-sexy, half-tipsy nighttime desert hookup is rudely interrupted by something that I can only describe as gasp-worthy. Just as the mood is leaning toward a more serious, sensual side, the pair are blindsided with an act so startling and violent (courtesy of the inimitable J.K. Simmons’ Roy), you have no choice but to laugh in abject horror. It’s a tension break that feels shocking but also deeply necessary, as it sets the tone for the comically complicated (and extremely toxic) dynamic between Nyles and Roy, and their mutual, life-altering predicament.
Attempting to conceal himself from Roy’s rage-fueled human scavenger hunt, Nyles crawls into a glowing red cave and reveals the source of his ongoing otherworldly turmoil. Just as he’s about to fall into the transfixing, time-sucking void, he sees that Sarah has followed him and warns her not to go any further. Unfortunately, as the next wildly chaotic morning reveals, she clearly did not listen and finds herself dealing with the same cruel cosmic crisis.
After throwing the better half of a six-pack at Nyles’ unsuspecting head and demanding an explanation, Sarah learns that they’re caught in an interdimensional time loop that will never end — not even with their deaths — and restarts as soon as they fall asleep. After a few fruitless attempts to disprove this theory, Sarah accepts the unending openness of her fate and embarks on a series of farcical, mostly illegal activities alongside her doomed counterpart.
As they haphazardly play target practice with a desert local, drunkenly steal and fly a plane to detrimental ends and engage in a choreographed denim-clad bar dance that is as endearing as it is ridiculous, their friendship takes them into another dimension — vulnerability. Amid all their wedding guest prank-pulling and homemade phallic tattooing of one another, they manage to find comfort and hope in the promise of their shared tomorrows.
As expected, Samberg is disarming and goofy — much like his “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” persona, Jake Peralta — but the ever-present tinge of existential sadness makes Nyles feel much more nuanced and lived-in than his other attempts at this type of character. Every bit his equal, Milioti is deeply affecting as Sarah, combining unapologetic antics, unspoken pain and tangible warmth into a truly complex character. Sarah’s inner life is rich and bittersweet, a plight that Milioti impressively communicates almost exclusively with her eyes. Together, the pair manage to create a sexy, funny, entirely relatable dynamic that just might catapult them into the romantic comedy couple canon.
Palm Springs is a refreshing take on the time-loop narrative, infusing humor, heart and heavy philosophical dilemmas into an otherwise overdone and monotonous genre. The film feels almost as if it’s in a category all its own, perhaps even a new genre — the experimental rom-com. It’s surreal and unserious without venturing into nonsensical territory (save for the whole “multiverse existing inside a desert cave” bit). Viewers never get the feeling that they’re being led astray or down some half-baked path. Instead, it’s truly enjoyable to watch the film unfold, with all its wild twists and turns — a credit to Barbakow’s clear, confident direction and Samberg’s and Milioti’s obvious on-screen chemistry.
With those three at the helm, navigating a number of raucous, dangerous and surprisingly heartfelt scenarios, Palm Springs manages to feel both fanciful and grounded. The sincerely captivating connection between Sarah and Nyles assuredly anchors the film in romance, while the inarguably original plot (thanks to screenwriter Andy Siara) takes big comedic swings and never misses.
Available to stream starting July 10 via Hulu