The romantic comedy is an evergreen form for the simple reason that most human beings spend vast amounts of time thinking about people they want to bone; fretting over how to best tell someone they used to want to bone that they do not want to bone them anymore; worrying that the person that used to want to bone them doesn’t want to bone them anymore, or performing a self-audit in an attempt to understand what is so wrong with their psyche that they can’t find a person who wants to bone them and who they also want to bone in perpetuity. Throwing together two hot people in order to film the whole struggle with the addition of jokes and a story arc that ends in happily-coupled boning is a comforting way to momentarily put ourselves above the boning conundrum while still dwelling on it. But even though our desires don’t change, cultural morés around sex and attitudes toward how emotionally healthy people engage in courtship are constantly evolving, meaning that the very good romantic comedies, like the new Andy Samberg-led rom-com Palm Springs, feel both of a cultural moment and overarchingly true.
Palm Springs plays with a time-loop precedent set by the classic rom-com Groundhog Day: Andy Samberg’s character, Nyles, is trapped in a day that resets every time he goes to sleep. But the difference is that Palm Springs starts someplace that would be late in Act Two of other time loop rom-coms, with a script by relative newcomer Andy Siara that mostly trusts the audience to understand the rules of this world. At the onset of the film, Nyles has already spent centuries living the same day—his girlfriend’s friend’s wedding in Palm Springs—over and over, presumably learning so many lessons about himself and those around him that he’s at peace with a day that doesn’t end. For instance, he’s watched his girlfriend Misty, played by the always-hilarious Meridith Hagner, cheat on him in the time loop so many times that he now seems to wish her well. His journey and growth are already established in our collective cultural imagination by similar stories that have come before, and the film truly begins when the bride’s charming but flawed sister, Sarah, follows Nyles into a mysterious time-bending cave and has to begin her journey of adjustment to the monotony of a world with no future or past with Nyles as her jaded guide.
The film works because the script is both darkly funny and perhaps a bit too relatable to a generation jaded by gamified dating apps that make it possible to scroll through so many relationship options that potential partners become a blur amidst the backdrop of news that somehow gets bleaker with every passing year. “The only way to really live in this is to embrace the fact that nothing matters,” Nyles tells Sarah, played by an equally funny Cristin Milioti, in one of her early days of being stuck in the loop. It’s a sentence that makes a bit too much sense amid the numbing, ceaseless cycle of bad news in the covid-19 era, wherein most of us are trapped in our houses as one day bleeds into the next. But the chemistry of Palm Springs’ stars carries what could be a downer of a theme. Like any good rom-com, Milioti and Samberg’s chemistry offers hope not only that the leads will bone despite mitigating circumstances, but that they should, even if the world around them genuinely sucks. And though the film criminally underutilizes a truly spectacular supporting cast, including J.K. Simmons, Peter Gallagher, and June Squibb, Palm Springs makes up for the time it squanders not letting those three chew the scenery by establishing Sarah’s story arc in a way that felt like a reinvention of an old form.
In the vast majority of rom-coms, it’s men and men alone who must do the growing. For instance, in Groundhog Day, it takes Bill Murray’s character, Phil Connors, an eon of living the same day over and over to learn how to bone empathetically and responsibly. Meanwhile, Andie McDowell’s character is perpetually 30, just waiting, unbeknownst to herself, in that loop until a 43-year-old Murray can finally see her as fully human. Similarly, Rachel McAdams has been waiting in rom-com time loops for men to sort themselves out for what feels like much of her career.
And while the rom-com men have flaws, the women patiently waiting for them to grow up have quirks. Harry Burns has unresolved anger issues from his failed first marriage and a residual fear of commitment. Sally Albright has trouble ordering off menus. Phil Connors has a lifetime of inability to see women as people deserving of respect. Andie McDowell thinks sweet vermouth is an acceptable bar order. But while Nyles has grown afraid of feeling too much in his neverending void and definitely has to work that shit out before any possibility of a happy ending, Sarah is a fucked up person in her own right due to years of feeling like an outsider in her own family (the script could have used a scene or two of elaboration addressing this). But unlike the flip side of the quirky lady with no real flaws, Sarah is also not the rom-com “problem woman” of 28 Days ilk. Sarah’s problems aren’t so catastrophic that they can’t be overcome, though she has been deeply shitty to people she loves as a result of her own hurt and has to forgive herself if she’s going to move forward, even in a world where there’s no tomorrow. Meanwhile, Nyles has to realize that change and growth are everyday work, time loop or not.
Like so many good rom-coms before it, Palm Springs rests on the idea of confronting and forgiving ourselves for past mistakes before we can truthfully consider the possibility of a tomorrow with a new romantic partner, which seems very apropos in a moment where many of us are stuck inside with little to do but think about ourselves. Just like When Harry Met Sally, generally thought to be the gold standard of cinematic rom-coms, feels like a post-sexual revolution commentary on prolonged adolescence, changing attitudes toward dating, cohabitation, and marriage, but also, at its heart, remains a movie about getting one’s shit together and trying to be the kind of person who not only can recognize a great thing when it comes along but is ready to commit to it. The central question of When Harry Met Sally—“Can men and women ever really be just friends?”—feels incredibly dated now that we’ve culturally proven that they can, but the question of “How can one tell when its time to get their shit together and commit?” never goes out of style, as evidenced by its re-emergence with a millennial makeover in Palm Springs.
“I can’t keep waking up here,” Sarah tells Nyles, late in the film when the claustrophobia of a reality that’s nearly impossible to change has fully set in. That sentence is also perhaps more relatable right now than it would have been last year or, potentially, next year. The idea that we can use our downtime in these monotonous yet bleak times to figure out how to live better once we’re out of this loop is both trite and true but is never treated as precious in Palm Springs. Embracing the movie’s central concept is a sweet way to rise above the covid conundrum while still dwelling on it. By subverting expectations of familiar rom-com tropes, the film manages to offer something slightly different while remaining wholly comforting in its idea that nothing is fucked up beyond repair, love exists, and there will probably, at some point, be a tomorrow.
Palm Springs is currently streaming on Hulu.