Time Loops and Tribulations

Palm Springs puts the “lonely” back in The Lonely Island.


Art by Ria Maisano-Torres

2020 is a weird year to look back on when it comes to movies, namely because so few were released. Though Covid-19 did throw a wrench into many release schedules, a good amount of movies that had already entered post-production before the pandemic saw streaming-exclusive releases throughout the year. One such movie is Palm Springs, a romantic comedy starring Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti that was released on Amazon Prime this July.

When we’re first introduced to Nyles, played by Andy Samberg, it seems that the only major difficulty he has to face is his dissatisfying relationship with his self-obsessed girlfriend. However, it’s soon revealed that Nyles is stuck in what he calls “one of those infinite time-loop situations.” 

This isn’t the first morning he’s woken up in Palm Springs on the day of his girlfriend’s best friend’s wedding. In fact, it’s happened so many times that he’s long since lost track.

What makes Palm Springs stand out is that the “time loop” trope isn’t just there to make the movie more entertaining, it’s used to make it more meaningful. Palm Springs easily could have fallen into the trap of using the time loop as a gimmick to distract from the bland rom-com underneath. Instead, the time loop is used as the vessel for the real focus of the movie: the romantic conflict.

Shortly after the beginning of the movie, Nyles seduces the maid of honor, Sarah, played by Cristin Milioti, but in the process accidentally gets her stuck in the time loop as well. Even though both of them claim to think that love isn’t real and the world is a lonely place, they begin to fall for each other. Unfortunately, it all falls apart after Nyles says the wrong thing and Sarah leaves him. 

This structure may be generic, but the setting of an infinite time loop makes it significantly more interesting, and also gives it a lot of weight. At its heart, Palm Springs is a movie about loneliness, and what could be more lonely than being condemned to an eternity of solitude in an infinite time loop after the only other person that’s stuck in it leaves you?

That being said, the way Palm Springs conveys this message isn’t quite as powerful as it could have been. Andy Samberg gives a good performance, but there are a few scenes that would have benefitted from a more compelling Samberg performance. However, considering that it’s his first serious role in a movie, it’s still a lot better than many might have predicted. 

When it comes to Cristin Milioti, although Andy Samberg may have her beat in terms of charm factor, she makes up for it by giving a more consistent performance. The real strength of both of their performances comes from their chemistry, which is part of the reason why a lot of the comedy lands so well. 

Palm Springs is a funny movie, and though there were a few jokes that didn’t land very well, most of the comedy is quite good. The time loop setting lends itself to endless funny scenarios just by nature, and the writer, Andy Siara, does a good job of taking advantage of it.

The tone of Palm Springs is easily one of the best things it has to offer. Even though the movie has some serious undertones, it still maintains a goofy and fun vibe that never ends up feeling out of place. 

Palm Springs is director Max Barbakow’s first feature length movie, but it doesn’t feel amateurish at all. It’s not a masterpiece, but considering how mediocre it could have been, I think Barbakow deserves a lot of the credit for its success. It’s not easy to make a trope like a time loop not feel gimmicky, and it’s certainly harder to pull that off while also maintaining a consistent tone, delivering a meaningful story, and achieving a healthy balance of romance and comedy. Palm Springs does all of this, and in 90 minutes no less, so suffice it to say that I’m excited for whatever Barbakow is working on next.