Welcome to WATCH3WORDS, the fortnightly column where I will be reviewing the good, the bad, and the ugly of the box office. Taking the method of the life-saving app What3Words (which allocates every 3 metre square of the world a unique combination of three words for the purpose of locating those in need) and shamelessly applying it to a non-life-saving cause, I will be assigning recent releases three random words which sum up that particular film. Whilst eagerly awaiting the reopening of cinemas in May, I look to Amazon Prime’s premiere of Max Barbakow’s Palm Springs.
Over the past few years the romantic comedy has been attempting a slow, and often painful, comeback. Various reincarnations of the once-beloved genre have earnestly tried to break away from its now tiresome template but almost always end up sacrificing the ‘comedy’ requirement in the process. Part of the déjà-vu feel of these revivals is down to setting. Harkening back to the rom-com’s golden age where, almost always, a vibrant cityscape provided the perfect framework for two soulmates to beat the odds of finding one another in a sea of people, recent releases aren’t deviating from this tried and tested method to their own peril: Holidate (2020) is set in Chicago while Set it Up (2018) and Isn’t it Romantic (2019) both take place in New York. Palm Springs refreshingly breaks the mould by taking the romantic comedy poolside. But far from simply showing us casual flirtation between lovers who float around on inflatables, it spices things up by taking a dive into the realm of the surreal. Ironically, by taking the well-known Groundhog Day storyline and injecting it with a healthy dose of sun, fun, and drug-fuelled nihilism, Palm Springs makes one of the dullest formats in the book suddenly enjoyable. With reality put to one side, exuberant excess and mayhem ensue.
Set in the eponymous desert resort city in the Golden State, the beginning of the film sees Nyles (Andy Samberg, in perfect casting) stuck in an infinite time loop and forced to relive, over and over, what can only be described as a typically ‘Californian’ wedding: bridal flower-crown, fairy lights, and quaint hay-bales. Having ditched what was on his first rodeo presumably formal dress, he prances around the party in yellow swimming trunks and a dashing Hawaiian-print shirt. He is your typical unfulfilled 30-year-old – admittedly through no fault of his own – but we get the feeling that even if reality was restored, he wouldn’t know quite what to do with himself. Fortunately for us, Nyles is well past the pity party stage which must inevitably accompany the infinite time loop experience. This allows for many humorous displays of his light-hearted indifference to his fate. Everything changes, however, when one night Nyles locks eyes with sister of the bride and family black sheep Sarah (Cristin Milioti). Both are listless. Both are totally alone. But just as Palm Springs seems to enter typical rom-com territory with the goofy-guy meets troubled-girl routine, the chaotic temporal paradox which provides its backdrop jumps in to save it from cliché. It is not spoiling anything to say that Sarah’s night of romance with Nyles gets her stuck in the loop with him – this happens very early on. Left with nothing to do and nowhere to go, together they must navigate their new shared reality and try to offset the ennui that grips them both, allowing for a wildly entertaining string of mischief and mishaps.
The result is a charming reinvigoration of the genre and all its trappings. Amazingly, all of the things which in a real-time rom-com would be borderline vomit-inducing are actually endearing in the time loop universe. Matching tattoos, matching outfits, and choreographed dances are surprisingly palatable when you know that these two people only have one another in the whole world. Then again, if it wasn’t for Samburg and Milioti’s effortless chemistry and the added spark they bring to their already likeable underdog characters, this love story might not have been so convincing.
At times deeply philosophical, and at others darkly playful, Palm Springs asks us to consider the big questions: what would we do if the world simply stopped? This is apt given the current state of affairs, but, perhaps more poignantly, it also asks: what would we do if the world simply stopped but we were with the person we love? Would we then, finally, be content?
Palm Springs is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.