'Palm Springs' Review: The Lonely Island Scores With A Hilarious Time Loop Rom-Com [Sundance 2020]

Historically, when The Lonely Island (the comedy trio of Akiva Schaffer, Jorma Taccone, and Andy Samberg) makes movies, those movies don't perform well at the box office but eventually become cult hits. That may be about to change with Palm Springs, a Groundhog Day-style rom-com which has "mainstream hit" written all over it. The film, which is produced by The Lonely Island and directed by Max Barbakow, stars Samberg and Cristin Milioti (How I Met Your Mother) and is among the most commercial and most satisfying things I've seen at this year's festival.

It's no accident that Samberg's character is named Nyles, because when we meet him, he's a full-blown nihilist. At a destination wedding in Palm Springs, Nyles seems to float through the day without a care in the world. He tolerates his idiot girlfriend (who's harboring a secret that Nyles has long since discovered), and when a friend asks him how he's doing, he breezily says, "Yesterday, today, tomorrow – they're all the same." It initially seems as if he's just spouting meaningless platitudes because that's the kind of laid back guy he is, we soon learn that he's being literal. He's spent a long time – and I mean, a long time – living the same day over and over again. When he meets Milioti's Sarah, the wedding's maid of honor, he slides toward her through the crowd with ease, always in the right place at the exact right moment. In time loop movies, it usually takes until the end of the story before we get to see a character's total mastery of their surroundings (think Bill Murray's chainsaw ice carving in Groundhog Day or Tom Cruise's battlefield antics in Edge of Tomorrow); Palm Springs gives us the goods right up front.

That's not the only way the movie plays with that well-worn genre formula: after encountering a mysterious man (J.K. Simmons) who's trying to kill Nyles, Sarah accidentally ends up getting sucked into a glowing cave, which causes her to be trapped with Nyles in the repeating day. "It's one of those infinite time loop situations you may have heard about," he explains to her, and naturally, Sarah is horrified and wants to break free. After learning the rules of her new confinement (they both can travel as far away from Palm Springs as they can, but the day officially ends when they either die or fall asleep) and testing the boundaries in every way she can think of, Nyles convinces her to try to find peace in their new reality by embracing the idea that nothing matters. Eventually, the two become friendly and she begins easing into that mindset, leading to one of the movie's biggest high points: a series of scenes in which the two of them accept the ridiculousness of their situation and just start messing with people, ruining the wedding ceremony in increasingly ludicrous ways and living it up in a bar on the outskirts of town. It's joyous, goofy filmmaking, the kind that will have a wide smile plastered across your face. But there wouldn't be a satisfying story without some conflict, and as Nyles and Sarah's relationship blossoms, things become more complicated and characters are forced to confront some hard truths.

Samberg, perpetually cracking open beer cans, has lots to dig into with this role, and he brings loads of charm to a character who, in the hands of a different performer, could have been a much bleaker presence. Samberg is funny, of course, but there's a vulnerability to his performance that grounds him and makes him more relatable than the above-it-all sarcasm machines played by guys like Ryan Reynolds. Critically, he also never quite edges into full-fledged dirtbag territory, allowing the audience to sympathize and stay with him throughout his arc. And this is a star-making performance from Milioti, who is absolutely magnetic as Sarah. She can do it all: wild-eyed frenzy, physical comedy, depths of sorrow, determined grit, and everything in between. Their chemistry is palpable, and while Andy Siara's script follows some well-trod rom-com tropes, these actors are so great that I didn't mind that familiarity one bit when it cropped up – I just wanted to spend more time with them in this world. (Despite the genre-heavy premise and the high quality jokes throughout, this is a much more down-the-middle movie than Lonely Island joints like MacGruber or Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, probably because they just produced this and didn't direct it.)

A sharp, laugh out loud crowd-pleaser, Palm Springs could end up being the funniest film of 2020. But it's not a mindless comedy. It tackles some profound topics amid the laughs, interrogating the sustainability of long-term relationships and exploring how a seemingly awful situation might be aided by a change in perspective. It already feels like a modern comedy classic, and I can't wait to revisit it (over, and over, and over...).

/Film Rating: 9 out of 10